At first glance, Dr. Greg Aldrich’s office on the Kansas State University campus is fairly typical. You’ll find rows of books on animal nutrition, a computer and filing cabinets filled with class materials. However, what grabs your attention is Lucre, Aldrich’s 2-year-old silver Labrador retriever. After pleasantries and a few treats, Lucre falls asleep under Aldrich’s legs.
Aldrich is a research associate professor in the department of grain science and industry and serves as the pet food program coordinator at K-State, making Lucre an appropriate addition to his office. He grew up in Larned, Kan. surrounded by cattle. He earned his bachelor’s degree in animal sciences and industry at K-State then continued his education with a master’s degree in animal nutrition from the University of Missouri and a doctorate degree from the University of Illinois in animal nutrition.
“My background was focused on cattle, and that’s really all I knew,” Aldrich says. “When I completed my doctoral degree in Illinois, I had done a lot of work in ingredients and digestive physiology.”
Aldrich’s focus shifted from cattle to smaller animals when he connected with a friend he met at K-State during a conference.
“He said, ‘We’re looking for a nutritionist,’ so I went to work for the IAMS Company,” Aldrich says. “I was a research nutritionist there, and I fell in love with the pet food industry. It’s dynamic, it’s exciting. Taking products to consumers who have pets means there’s a lot of emotions involved in that purchasing decision. That made it fascinating.”
After building his resume at places like Kemin Industries, a global ingredient supplier, as its director of research and development and Menu Foods Midwest Corp as its vice president of product development, Aldrich started his own consulting company in 2003.
“My wife, Susan, and I started a pet food nutrition services company in Topeka,” Aldrich says. “We were providing formulations, new product development and technical services to a wide swath of pet food companies.”
The (Wild)Cat’s Meow
One of the services Aldrich provided as an independent contractor was developing prototypes of the company’s formulations. In order to offer that prototype, Aldrich needed a kitchen.
“I didn’t need a full-scale manufacturing facility,” Aldrich clarifies. “I just needed a pilot plant. And that’s what brought me to K-State.”
At the Bioprocessing and Industrial Value-Added Product Innovation Center, also part of the department of grain science and industry at K-State, Aldrich could rent the extrusion lab to create test batches for clients.
“I was doing these prototypes on a regular basis,” Aldrich says. “In 2010 and 2011, as part of these projects, I’d started a dialogue with some of the faculty in grain science. They said they had a feed science and management program within the grain science department where they were teaching students how to manufacture feed for livestock. They presented an opportunity to also teach these kids how to manufacture food for companion animals and asked me to teach a class. That sounded like a lot of fun.”
Not Just a Pet Project
An instructor position was secured, the class was established, and after a successful first semester, Aldrich was invited to be part of K-State’s faculty. In 2012, the pet food program at K-State was born. The program is housed within the grain science and industry department under feed science, an interesting departure from the place one might assume it would fall.
“Most folks involved with research and teaching for companion animals would be in animal science because they’re looking at the animal’s nutrition, physiology, reproduction and management,” Aldrich says. “But our program, because it focuses on the food and how the food is processed, is housed under feed science.”
That placement gives the program a unique position. The grain science department at K-State is the only one in the world, giving students an advantage in education, resources and job opportunities.
One of the graduate students reaping the benefits of the pet food program, Amanda Dainton, is in her second year of her doctoral program. She received her bachelor’s degree in feed science and management with an emphasis in pet food processing from K-State, then went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for her master’s degree before returning to K-State.
“When I was looking for schools out of high school, I wanted to go somewhere that had a really strong vet school and applied nutrition program,” Dainton says. “I met Dr. Aldrich day one of undergrad, and he recruited me into the pet food program, which is the path I’ve followed ever since. The feed science program in the grain science department is really hands-on and looks at how the food is made, which really interested me.”
At one point, Dainton did want to go into veterinary school, but another opportunity within the pet food industry changed her mind. Dainton got an internship at Blue Buffalo, a pet food company headquartered in Connecticut, doing quality assurance.
“I absolutely fell in love,” Dainton says.
Currently, the undergraduate program has fewer than 15 students. The program is growing, but Aldrich says it’s difficult for students to find the program.
“If you’re in high school looking at career options, many of them choose things like engineering, pre-health professional or pre-vet,” Aldrich says. “The pet food industry probably isn’t something they studied in their science or agriculture classes.” That’s why Aldrich is focused more on graduate students.
“Where I’ve seen the greater impact is in the graduate training,” Aldrich says. “They are looking at the job market a little more seriously than they would be at 17, or what an undergraduate would be considering. They realize the need for additional training that goes along with the demands of the pet food industry.”
Preparing students for employment in the pet food industry is the number one goal of the pet food program. Coursework is focused on pet food processing as well as animal nutrition, behavior, sensory analysis and safety.
“Our coursework and lab spaces focus on exploring the utility of ingredients in pet food,” Aldrich says. “We have the unique space and equipment at K-State to provide a service to ingredient companies to communicate the science of their ingredients to major pet food companies. We’re the perfect conduit for that.”
In addition to preparing students for work in the pet food industry, Aldrich’s work directly benefits those working in the value-added products industry. In one example, an ingredient company came to the pet food program to determine the effectiveness and nutritional value of introducing Miscanthus grass into pet food products. The ornamental grass grows to be up to 10 feet tall, and the company had explored converting its cellulosic biomass into ethanol. The market never took off, and the technology didn’t prove to be cost effective. The owner of the company who was growing the Miscanthus grass hoped to find a different use.
“We use a lot of cellulose in pet food,” Aldrich says. “It helps us dilute the energy density of the diet, which is important if we’re feeding a dog who is obese. We also use it in feline diets for cats who suffer from frequent hairballs. Cellulose can help push hairballs through. This Miscanthus grass contains a lot of that cellulose. We did several studies in our lab to prove it’s safe and nutritionally effective in both cats and dogs. Now that ingredient is being introduced into a lot of new products.”
Projects like these keep Aldrich coming back to work and keep students like Dainton interested in the possibilities. “We don’t have quite as much information about the nutrition of dogs and cats as we do for cows, horses, pigs, sheep. There’s a lot of room for exploration. There’s so much we don’t yet know,” Aldrich says.
“The thing I love the most about this program is the diversity of research,” Dainton says. “In the lab’s research, we look at things like the nutrition of the food, food safety and shelf-life. Since my interest is more in how the food is made, specifically canned food, I’m able to look at all the little changes you can make during the process and how different ingredients affect the nutrition of the product.”
Nutrition is key in pet food because, unlike humans who rarely experience nutritional deficiencies because they eat a variety of foods, pets “get their diet in every bite,” Aldrich says. Therefore, pet food nutritionists must consider the unique chemical reactions that arise when combining ingredients using certain processes so that each kibble of food contains the nutrients pets need.
“I have to make sure the minerals I add don’t start the oxidation process, which causes food to go rancid in a very short amount of time,” Aldrich says. “I have to make sure the vitamins are fortified to a level that when they go through the process of extrusion, baking or canning, they aren’t lost to the point of a deficiency, thus causing deficiency diseases.”
Aldrich gives the example of vitamin B1, or thiamine. When you put this vitamin in canned food, it’s destroyed during the thermal process. “It’s a wimpy vitamin,” Aldrich says. “When it gets hot, it just melts.” Cats require a high amount of vitamin B1, approximately five times the amount dogs need. “If I feed my cat canned food alone and the thiamine is destroyed because of the processing of the canned food, the cat is now deficient,” Aldrich says. “If I feed this diet to my cat for two weeks, my cat will become paralyzed. Within a month of feeding my cat this diet, it will die. This is something we’ve been working on—to come up with an answer to make sure that diet is nutritionally complete for the animal.”
Safety is a top priority for any pet owner. It’s also a research element used in the pet food program. In 2007, the pet food industry was pulled into the Food and Drug Administration Amendment Act, which turned into the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. According to the FDA’s website, FSMA aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of responding to contamination of the food supply to preventing it.
“Today, pet food is more stringently inspected for safety from pathogens like salmonella than human food,” Aldrich says. “The pet food you buy is probably safer than the produce you purchase from the grocery store and bring into your home. We are doing work in our labs to process and treat products with ingredients in order to make them pathogen free. It’s all about making safe, nutritious pet food.”
Making A Pawprint on the Economy
The pet food program is not only impacting the health of our pets, it’s also impacting the lives of students and the economic viability of the state of Kansas. One of those students is Spencer Smith, a young professional from Kansas City, Kan. who wanted to be a veterinarian. During her education at K-State, she worked at a “doggy daycare” where she would see people bring in interesting things for their dogs to eat.
“I’m talking people bringing in a bag of McDonald’s hamburgers,” Smith says. While delicious for human consumption, Smith knew feeding a dog hamburgers wasn’t right. Seeing that and discovering the pet food program changed her trajectory to where she is now—an associate scientist in product development at Hill’s Pet Nutrition in Topeka, Kan.
“Most of my job focuses around our wet foods,” Smith says. “I do a lot of product formulation and looking at new ingredients and how changes in formulations might affect the processing side of things. If I change something, is it going to become thicker and not run through the system the way we want? This type of issue can cause production challenges when we bring a new formula to market. I look at everything from start to finish.”
The pet food program prepares students for a career in the industry with numerous courses and hands-on opportunities, and the jobs are as diverse as breeds of dogs. From the marketing department, tracking market trends and what buyers are looking for, to nutritionists and scientists, formulating products and testing safety, there’s an opportunity in the pet food industry for a variety of people. As for Kansas, the pet food industry has a total direct output of approximately $5.4 billion and employs nearly 4,000 people according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
“The pet food program is helping with two things: jobs and value-added agriculture.” Aldrich says. “We’re supporting or providing a floor to agricultural commodities and revenues for the state.”
In the U.S. alone, the pet food industry is worth approximately $32 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association. Pet owners are spending more than ever before on pets, and pet food continues to make up most of the dollars spent within the industry.
“The economic impact of the pet food industry is huge,” Smith says. “We’ve consistently seen that pet food sales either continue to stay the same or rise no matter how the economy is doing. I think a lot of pet owners out there would feed their pets before they feed themselves.”
The pet food program has support from Knowledge Based Economic Development and the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization. KBED is a partnership of civic, academic and private sector entities collaborating to support and attract new and growing companies in Manhattan by leveraging unique capabilities and infrastructure available at K-State. KSU-IC is dedicated to the start up and expansion of technology-based enterprises, developing economic-based strategic partnerships for K-State, as well as enabling the commercialization of university and under-utilized corporate intellectual property.
“I also work with the Chamber of Commerce when I get approached by people I’ve worked with in the industry,” Aldrich says. “I’ve worked with a lot of pet food clients over the years, and when they’re looking to relocate or places to do their work, they’ll call me. I’m hoping to get some additional pet food companies to move into the area.”
Aldrich says there’s a good base of pet food manufacturers in Kansas, including pockets in Emporia, Topeka, the Burns and Sabetha area, Great Bend, and the animal health corridor in Kansas City.
“Not only do we have major pet food manufacturers located in our state, we also have the equipment manufacturers and ingredient suppliers,” says Suzanne Ryan-Numrich, Kansas Department of Agriculture’s international trade director. “There continues to be more educational opportunities, not only for professionals already working in the industry, but also for students who want to work in the pet food industry after graduation. Kansas is the complete package when it comes to the pet food sector.”
The pet food industry is a major part of the Kansas economy, and there’s a lot of opportunity for growth.
KDA developed an agricultural growth strategy project to focus on developing a statewide strategic growth plan for 19 agricultural industry sectors. Ryan-Numrich leads the pet food sector of the project and says they’ve worked on several initiatives to grow the pet food industry in Kansas.
“Two years ago, KDA partnered with Food Export Midwest and WATT Global Media to start a new market development activity,” Ryan-Numrich says. “We helped lead a foreign buyer’s mission at the Petfood Forum in Kansas City. The buyers participating in the event represented some of the fastest growing global pet food markets. This year, KDA will also help lead a buyer’s mission at the Global Pet Expo. I see tremendous value in developing relationships in markets that frequently see growth in the double digits.”
With a pet in nearly two-thirds of homes in the U.S., the pet food program at K-State is set to not only ensure the quality and safety of what we feed our favorite furry friends, but also develop the economy in Manhattan and Kansas. With Aldrich at the helm, the program is up for the challenge. “We’ll continue to amplify our role in value-added agriculture and establishing Kansas as the global hub for pet food science.”
Luckily for Aldrich, Lucre is up for the job of taste-tester, that is after he wakes up from his afternoon nap.
Sheridan Wimmer is the assistant director of communications at Kansas Farm Bureau. Serving the farmer and rancher members of the organization is Sheridan’s jam (or jelly, no discrimination). Away from work, she loves spoiling her dog, Brizzie, and admittedly enjoys a good Netflix binge.