Skip to content

Tour a Pet Food Plant

February 9, 2011

Understanding the Basics of How Pet Food is Made

Kibble.  Dry food.  Crunchies. Nuggets.  Whatever you call it, most pet food starts with the same basic processing.

A Tour of Doc Truli’s Journey Through a Pet Food Processing Plant

Trainloads of feed commodities (“ingredients”) arrive at the processing plant on the rails.  The special rail cars open their big train-car belly buttons on the bottom center of the cars and a large opening in the ground (basically the width of an average Chevy Camaro) admits the dry ingredients.  The pit has a gigantic auger.  The auger is like a gigantic corkscrew.  It turns, and as it turns, the ingredients like corn, soy, wheat, etc, ride the circular-staircase auger escalator down.  They  raw ingredients enter “the system.”

Doc Truli donned her hard hat to enter the actual processing plant.  Everyone had to wipe their shoes and boots in special disinfectant baths.  The plant manager forbid cameras or recording devices.  This visit was by special invitation only.  The plant won an award for being the cleanest, best run food processing plant in its state.  It beat out all the plants processing food for human consumption to win that award.  This was a model pet food processing pant; if you feed your pet from a bag, you’d want the food to start here.  VirtuaCat eats this food!

The Control Room

The grains meet the proteins and the fats in the bowels of the plant.  The tour was not privy to these areas of the plant; they are high paced and potentially dangerous for visitors.

Up several flights of grey steel stairs like you saw in the movie The Terminator in the plant at the end, Doc Truli entered the control room.  One guy in a white dress shirt with a black tie and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows sat at his worn grey fabric desk chair in his yellow hard hat and monitored the control wall of light bulbs and switches.

Colored light bulbs represent the guts of the plant on a gigantic control wall in the plant control room.  If you’ve ever seen a movie with a subway control wall, like Pelham 921, you’ve seen what the control room of a feed processing plant looks like.  It’s that complicated.  Really.  The switchboards and dials resemble a control board off of the deck of the Starship Enterprise.  Probably, the system was about that old, too.  There was no marble, no glitz, no wasteful corporate spending in this control room.

You look out of a large plate-glass window from the control room and look down on gigantic 2 ton stainless steel vats of goo with gigantic spatulas turning and swirling through them.  The paddles were are large as 4 car hoods put together.  3-5 blades that size churned the goo in the vats.  New ingredients flowed through pipes and folded into the top of the mix.

Hold on to your hard hat and exit the steel staircase as you walk down to the plant operating floor.

The Mysterious By-Products

The vats of goo contain the protein mix, mainly.  Different sections of the plant hold different qualities of goo.  Doc Truli wanted to see the “meat by-products” goo.  (Wouldn’t you?)  The by-products vat of goo looked taupe to light brown.  The surface was as thick as a slightly lumpy pudding.  The spatula mixing thing churned slowly and kept the goo warm and moving.  At that stage, the claws, beaks, tendons, poor meat cuts, and whatever else went in there were melted, rendered, and unrecognizable.

Flashback to the Slaughter Plant

Doc Truli witnessed the “by=products” being taken from carcasses and sorted back at the meat packing plant.  (Before the food processing plant.)

Doc Truli can tell you the slaughter plant held gigantic brown square boxes lined with plastic.  Each box was about 4 ft on a side.  She could barely see over the brim.  The parts of a pig, for example, were divided as they moved through the plant on a conveyor belt.  The boxes separated ovaries (the only buyers for this pig body part were Chinese restaurants for use in home-made wontons), hearts, lungs, intestines, uterus, kidneys, feet, etc, meat cuts went to separate conveyor belts.  Intestines went to the casing cleaning and processing room to be made int all-natural sausage casings.  The muscles of the animal went to various cutting floors and drying and curing rooms throughout the plant.  (The casing room was considered the hardest job at the plant because the whole room was a steam room and, well, it’s hard to work in a steamroll!)

Red boxes contained body parts splashed with black ink.  These parts were “unfit for human consumption.”  Diseased lungs (common in intensively-raised swine) were a majority of the condemned material.  Meat contaminated with fecal material, and undesirable body parts went into those vats.  These boxes probably end up at pet food processing plants for cheaper pet foods.

The rendered mix back at the pet food plant was not the meat, not the lean internal organs, and depending on the quality of the final pet food, not the meat fit for human consumption.  In a high-quality food, the meat in the vat would be organically-grown and fit for human consumption.  Same vats, same heat, same unrecognizable “meat” in the mix.  Now, some companies bake their kibble.  That’s lower heat and more like food you or I would cook.  That’s the marketing angle and the potential health benefit of baked foods.

High Pressure, High Heat

The protein goo is sucked into a piping system at high pressure and high temperature.  The semi-liquified mix of the ingredients, all the fats, proteins and carbs are “shot” under high pressure and temperature through the piping system and essentially, a shaped nozzle at the end, kind of like the nozzle on a cake-icing bag, determines the kibble shape.  The goo mix shoots out of the end of the pipe, crystallizes and falls into the collecting vat.

High Protein Cat Food “Indoor and Diabetes” Formulas

The new indoor cat formulas are high protein for our carnivorous cats.  They are a veritable revolution in cat feeding.

Cats get their energy from meat and fat, not carbohydrates like humans.  So before a marathon, a human will “carb load.”  Not only will a cat not “carb load,” they also won’t run a marathon!  So why were there no 50% protein dry foods before a few years ago?

The physical nature of the pipes and the physics on the system made high protein cat foods- in the 50% protein range- gum up the pipes.  The processing plants literally could not manufacture an appropriate cat food with high protein.  Years of investigation and retooling finally resulted in commercially available high protein cat food.

(Baked or freeze-dried pet food preserves more of the native nutrition traditionally lost on heat processing.)

Ingredients Sprayed on After the Cooking

Cold formed nutrients and antioxidants

After the high pressure, high heat situation, fragile ingredients are added to the food.

Pet Food Ingredients That Cannot Survive Heat Processing

  • Digestive enzymes
  • probiotics
  • omega fatty acids
  • antioxidants like vitamin e
  • herbal and super nutrition ingredients like blueberries, bee pollen, or acai berry would have to be added after the heat processing.

When a company advertises that they use cold-formed nutrients, they are capitalizing on the fact that they spray the fragile ingredients on after the high heat and temperature stages of production.  Digestive enzymes, probiotics, omega fatty acids, antioxidants like vitamin e, and certain herbal and super nutrition ingredients like blueberries, bee pollen, or ace berry would have to be added after the heat processing.

These foods have a shiny, usually dark-brown appearance due to the cold-sprayed ingredients being added onto the kibble nuggets after they have been cooked and cooled.  If your cat insists on eating kibble out of bag (as does VirtuaCat), then Cold-Formed nutrients are a positive improvement in pet food.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Simone permalink
    February 9, 2011 6:34 pm

    Sounds like Upton Sinclair’s famous book on meatpacking “The Jungle” Thank you for the insight Molly.

  2. Mindy permalink
    February 9, 2011 4:48 pm

    Thank you for sharing your tour experience!

  3. JANETTE ELLISON, DVM permalink
    February 9, 2011 3:36 pm

    What is the name and address of this pet food manufacturing ? Is this in the United States?
    Can you list the company so I can call them please.

    • February 9, 2011 10:04 pm

      Dear Janette,
      I visited this plant as a senior food animal major veterinary student. That was over 12 years ago, so perhaps their standards are more or less than they were. Also, the invitation came through a professor who knew someone who knew someone. I present this recounting of my visit because it affected me deeply.

      (The pharmaceutical company I was invited to rescinded the invite one day before the planned visit. The veal calf slaughter plant had us sign agreements not to release names.)

      In this case, the plant was in North Carolina, in the US. There is no one to call to arrange a tour as this was a special educational experience while I was a veterinary student.

      The slaughter plant was the Hatfield Plant in Southeastern Pennsylvania. They sometimes run tours and invite media coverage.

  4. February 9, 2011 1:14 pm

    I agree, this is a fabulous article. I’ve shared it via a link with my blog readers. Thanks for writing on this subject.


  5. February 9, 2011 1:06 pm

    This is soooo good, really explains what we ‘eat’…Currently my cats are eating Life’s Abundance canned and Nulo dry and canned…can you share with us what your kitty eats, especially in light of your behind the scenes experience.


  1. Easy Healthy Food Recipes | Sue's Healthy Lifestyle
  2. Tweets that mention Tour a Pet Food Plant « VirtuaVet --
  3. “Tour of a Pet Food Plant” article by Virtuavet | Mythicbells Persian Cats & Kittens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: