KANSAS CITY, MO — The American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) successfully hosted its first-ever virtual Pet Food Conference on Tuesday, Jan. 26, drawing more than 200 industry professionals together to discuss key topics impacting the industry in 2020 and in the future.

“Nearly 250 professionals from all facets of the pet food industry participated in the AFIA’s virtual Pet Food Conference this week, proving the industry’s yearning for quality education events and drive for continuous improvement is ever-present despite our ongoing battle to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Louise Calderwood, director of regulatory affairs for AFIA. “The AFIA Pet Food Committee set a new bar for our annual conference, bringing together an outstanding lineup of speakers who challenged us to think differently about how consumers make decisions on their pets’ nutrition, how we approach future growth opportunities at home and abroad, and excited us to think about what future pet research will reveal.”

The agenda featured several familiar faces and timely topics regarding the pet food industry’s pandemic performance and post-pandemic outlook, the importance of sustainable uses for animal protein and fat byproducts, how behavioral economics can improve supply chains in demand planning, an insightful update on international trade, as well as a federal regulatory update from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Additionally, three pre-recorded sessions made available on Jan. 25 shared details from the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) recent Mid-Year Meeting, results of a pet food production and ingredient analysis conducted by Pet Food Institute, the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER), and the North American Renderers Association, and a look at what to expect for trade under the Biden administration from Gina Tumbarello, director of international policy and trade at AFIA.

In his keynote address, Jonathon Karelse of NorthFind Management took a psychological approach to supply chain, relating behavioral economics with demand planning and explaining how the pet care industry can leverage that understanding to improve the supply chain and even plan for the “next pandemic.”

"2020 was a tough year for events worldwide and the AFIA was no exception to that,” said Veronica Rovelli, senior director of meetings and events, ahead of the event. “We thank our members, hotel and industry partners for being flexible and learning alongside us in a new environment.”


Pet Care in a Post-Pandemic World

Jared Koreten, industry manager of food and nutrition at Euromonitor International, kicked off the live portion of the event with his presentation, “Pet Care in a Post-Pandemic World,” in which he reflected on a year of challenges but also a year of opportunity, adaptation and positive growth for the global pet food industry.

Koerten touched on four key industry challenges that impacted the market in 2020, some of which are expected to continue shaping the market going forward. These included the global economic outlook, supply chain issues, channel shifts and a rise in pet ownership. Read a comprehensive summary of his presentation in our separate article.


Staying sustainable

Ansen Pond, Ph.D., head of food safety, quality and regulatory for Pilgrims/JBS USA, provided a detailed account of sustainable benefits of rendering to the pet food industry, including significant contributions to reduce animal protein, fat and byproduct waste, repurpose water, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and provide fresh meat slurry ingredients to pet food processors.

“I really think there’s an awesome message here and I think it’s something that we need to share with as many people as we can, to our consumers, and to our customers going forward,” he said.

An increased amount of animal proteins and products to meet demand for increased human and pet consumption will directly result in an increased amount of animal byproducts, Pond said.

In the United States, only a portion of an animal is utilized for human consumption. Roughly 49% of raw materials from cattle, 37% from poultry and 44% from swine are considered inedible in the United States market for human food.

“We have got to find alternative uses for the bones and the fats and the trimmings that come off of these animals after they’re harvested,” Pond said. “…There are all sorts of types of materials that we really need to utilize in the best way that we possibly can, one to honor that animal’s life, but also to get as much value as we possibly can from that animal’s life.”

In short, Pond explained rendering as a historically sustainable facet of animal agriculture that can benefit the pet food industry and other industries as we mitigate the increased global population and its resulting environmental repercussions.

“As you know, we’re going to have to utilize these proteins and fats in some way, whether it’s composting or rendering or in pet food,” Pond said. “It’s very important that people understand the actual science behind the byproducts and that we’re not painting a negative picture behind these byproducts because they’re so, so important to the sustainability of animal agriculture.”

If these ingredients are better understood in the pet food industry among both brands and consumers, they can be used to as an opportunity for both economic and environmental value going forward.

Pond closed his presentation by offering a challenge to his fellow pet industry members.

“How can we use some of this data to help paint a sustainable message and picture for pet food?” he asked. “How can we work together to stop demonizing animal byproducts, as they’re such an important part to animal agriculture?

“…The future is very bright. We have a great message to tell. We just need to paint a more accurate picture, so I challenge you with that,” Pond concluded.

Read more about Pond's presentation on animal fats, proteins and sustainability in our separate article.


Trade outlook

The conference offered two separate presentations on trade, signaling the importance of this topic looking ahead to 2021. Gregg Doud, former chief agricultural negotiator, with the rank of ambassador, in the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) who served from March 2018 to January 2021, provided his candid perspective on US agricultural exports. Tumbarello shared insights into the United States trade policy under the new administration.

Following the signing and implementation of the US-China Phase One trade agreement in early 2020, Doud reported record breaking agricultural exports to China.

“Our ag exports to China are up 77% for the 11 months of 2020 versus the same 11 months of 2019,” Doud said. “In fact, the latest trade data for October and November, shows those were the two biggest months of all time for ag exports to China.”

Looking at pet food exports to China, the United States exported approximately $11 million worth of products to China in 2019. In 11 months of 2020, Doud reported that number was up to $30 million. Composite animal feed exports to China are also up 34%.

An important factor making these exports possible is the increase in US facilities eligible to export products to China. That number has risen during the Phase One agreement from 1,500 US agricultural facilities to well over 4,000. In addition to China, Doud said trade agreements with Canada, Mexico and Japan are important to the pet food industry and overall US agriculture interests. Agreements with these four countries represent 47% of US ag exports.

“I’m particularly proud of what we did in the Japan agreement,” Doud said. “It’s one of the great unsung trade deals of all time to get ourselves on track with all the other TPP countries in regard with agricultural trade in Japan. I think it’s a very significant thing especially for us on the meat and wheat side of the equation. And obviously what we’ve done with USMCA is very important.”

Looking ahead, Doud said the United States has yet to reach an agricultural trade agreement with the United Kingdom. He believes an agreement with the European Union will prove difficult based on our risk-based regulatory system and the European regulatory system based on the precautionary principle. These two approaches to food safety are fundamentally different, Doud said. He also mentioned Vietnam, the Philippines, Saudia Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, Kenya and Morocco as interesting prospects for future agricultural trade agreements.

In a pre-recorded presentation, Tumbarello discussed how the new administration in the United States might potentially address trade. In spite of the impressive 2020 ag export numbers to China, Tumbarello said it’s important to remember that the United States remains in a trade war with China that includes Chinese tariffs on US exports of pet food products to China. She said the previous administration favored bilateral over multilateral trade agreements and saw tariffs as a “go-to” way to approach obstacles and grievances with trade partners.

“We’ve heard senior advisors of President Biden mentioning that the Biden administration might consider using tariffs as-needed and backed by a strategy to address violations of trade rules,” Tumbarello shared. “So, we might continue to see tariffs as a way to incentivize our trading partners for change, but I think if the Biden administration goes that way, we’ll see it dawn in a different way and imposed in a different fashion.”

In addition to shifting toward multilateral agreements, President Biden has pledged to prioritize relationships in trade agreements. However, Biden has also pledged, according to Tumbarello, not to enter into any new free trade agreements until the United States has invested in Americans and equipped them to succeed in the global economy.

“I think a lot remains to be seen,” Tumbarello said, “and I look forward to working with the Biden administration on behalf of the feed industry, as well as the pet food industry, to ensure that we have our best foot forward and our interests are taken into account.”


Friends of Pet Food

For the second year, AFIA took the opportunity at the Pet Food Conference to recognize two individuals for their longstanding support of the industry. Galen Rokey of Wenger Manufacturing, Inc., and Michael Panasevich of Summit Ridge Farms were presented with AFIA’s 2021 Friend of Pet Food Award for their industry-shaping contributions.

Rokey is currently the director of process technology at Wenger’s companion animal division, and Panasevich is currently the president and founder of Summit Ridge Farms, described by AFIA as the world’s largest independent research facility dedicated to the pet food industry.

“Combining a vast knowledge of nutritional requirements, with an expert understanding of ingredients and a proficiency in cooking and forming via the extrusion process, Rokey has advanced pet food concepts in the research laboratory, then educated the industry on the lecture circuit, leading to the industry’s feed-to-food evolution,” Baker said.

“Panasevich’s passion and life's work has been to provide the most precise, accurate and scientific data that empowers the industry to develop absolutely the best diets, treats, supplements and products for consumers,” he added.

Read more about the 2021 Friend of Pet Food Award recipients in our separate article.


FDA update

David Edwards, Ph.D., director of the Division of Animal Feeds, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), shared an update on the agency’s near-term focus. With the recent addition of FDA CVM personnel as a result of an increase in the federal budget, Edwards said he looks forward to several benefits from this added staff.

“This gives us the opportunity to work on pre-market submissions where we review things such as food additives or generally recognized as safe substances. It gives us the opportunity not only to make those reviews more consistent which will help out industry but also once we get those people trained, it will give us an opportunity to shorten our review time.”

Although the pandemic limited the agency’s ability to conduct FSMA inspections, Edwards shared some of the concerning observations noted during the inspections that did occur.

“We are still encountering firms that are required to have a food safety plan that do not have that written food safety plan,” Edwards shared. “All of the compliance dates and delayed dates have already passed so it’s really incumbent on everyone now to have those food safety plans in place.”

Edwards said that the agency is also seeing firms that have a written food safety plan but are missing an evaluation of at least one hazard that is known to be associated with animal foods or their processes; or the facility has not identified or implemented a preventive control for hazards that do require a preventive control.

“Each step of the food safety plan really builds on the prior step to ensure that animal food is safe and not adulterated,” Edwards said. “If you don’t have a solid food safety foundation or if you are not consistently implementing those foundational pieces, then you are essentially rolling the food safety dice.”

Edwards also highlighted the new challenge regarding aflatoxin in pet food and recent recalls related to that contaminant. He said these recalls emphasize the need to have pre-requisite programs in place related to food hazards. Pre-requisite programs are used to reduce the probability that a hazard will occur in the absence of preventive controls and are frequently used for hazards such as aflatoxin, other mycotoxins, drug carryover and nutrient deficiency/toxicities.


Supporting pet food students

Another feature of the conference that was surely brought back by popular demand were graduate student presentations. AFIA selected three students to close out the afternoon by sharing results from their own research.

Sydney Banton, University of Guelph, Ontario, shared “Grains on the Brain: A Survey of Dog Owner Purchasing Habits Related to Grain-Free Diets.” This research revealed factors affecting pet owners’ selection of grain-free formulas and how those factors differ from country to country.

Presenting “A Challenge for High-Pressure Processing Pasteurization of Raw Pet Foods” was Xinyao Wei, University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Specific takeaways of this research looked at how the presence of ground bone affects the efficacy of the HPP treatment and whether Salmonella spp. inactivated by HPP can recover during the refrigerated shelf-life of the product.

Hannah Godfrey, University of Guelph, Ontario, shared “Choline and its Lipotropic Effects for the Benefit of Companion Animals” which addressed choline’s role in animal health specific to cats and dogs. The research addressed choline’s beneficial role combating pet obesity and common risks for choline deficiencies in pet diets.

Read more about pet food and treat industry events.