AURORA, MO. — The litmus test for modern pet food formulations is evolving as consumer demands move the needle toward products and brands that check a variety of boxes. Does the formulation have a clean label? Is it all-natural? Are ingredients traceable? Is the brand actively pursuing sustainability? And, most of all, will this product benefit a pet’s health and wellbeing?
To this end, MFiber is offering the industry a multifaceted value proposition for pet owners and pet food manufacturers alike with its Miscanthus grass fiber. Pet Food Processing spoke with Eric Allphin, vice president of business development at MFiber, to better understand Miscanthus grass fiber’s place in pet food.
In the Obama-Biden administration era, cellulosic ethanol mandates drove the development of biomass crop assistance programs that planted Miscanthus grass (Miscanthus giganteus) with the intention of harvesting the crop for use in the energy industry. When those markets didn’t develop as expected, Renew Biomass saw a new opportunity for Miscanthus grass as a sustainable, cost-effective fiber source for the pet food and treat industry. The company partnered with Miscanthus grass farmers, established its own conversion facilities for processing the harvested crops into finished ingredients and, thus, MFiber was born.
The value of Miscanthus grass was quickly recognized as a functional, insoluble source of fiber for pet food, able to replace or work in tandem with traditional sources such as powdered cellulose, which is a pulp product of the paper industry, and beet pulp, a byproduct of the sugar industry.
By comparison, Miscanthus grass fiber can serve as a one-to-one replacement for powdered cellulose in a pet food formulation because both fiber sources are highly insoluble. Miscanthus grass fiber can also be paired with beet pulp or tomato pomace, which are more soluble sources of fiber, to achieve a more well-rounded profile of both insoluble and soluble fiber, or an ideal “fiber matrix,” as Allphin described.
Additionally, MFiber contains xylooligosaccharides (XOS), a prebiotic that can support digestive health, whereas powdered cellulose does not. MFiber Miscanthus grass is all-natural, non-GMO, produced in SF/SF facilities without the use of chemicals. The production of Miscanthus fiber does not require the vast quantities of water needed to produce powdered cellulose, making it a more clean-label and environmentally friendly option.
“Paper has a place in this world, but it doesn't need to be in our pets’ food,” Allphin said. “That's really, where Miscanthus comes in. Miscanthus can take the place of powdered cellulose and really help this industry.”
From plant to package
Miscanthus grass is a perennial crop, meaning it grows back year after year without having to be replanted. It is grown purposefully for the pet food industry and, while Allphin was quick to point out that certain byproducts are excellent sources of nutrition for pets, this specificity gives MFiber a leg up in three important aspects: cost, traceability and sustainability.
Renew Biomass runs a vertically integrated business model for its MFiber ingredients, from planting and harvesting the Miscanthus grass to the conversion facilities that process the final ingredients. Farms are operated in Southwest Missouri, and a proprietary method is used to lightly process the Miscanthus grass into powdered or pelleted fiber without using any chemicals or water.
“Being vertically integrated allows us to control all aspects of the supply chain, from the farming side to the manufacturing,” Allphin said.
MFiber uses proprietary planting and processing methods to mass produce its Miscanthus grass fiber. The company describes its supply of Miscanthus as “almost limitless,” and the fact that it is grown and regrown on marginal land on rural farms in Missouri speaks not only to the environmental and social sides of sustainability, but also to its transparency. The company aims for 100% traceability, working alongside farmers from soil preparation and planting through harvest and transportation.
This allows for reliable ingredient availability. Where recent paper shortages have interrupted the supply of pulp and paper byproducts such as powdered cellulose, Miscanthus grass is available year-round and is not affected by the same upstream supply chain constraints.
“We're not a commodity,” Allphin said. “There’s not a limited market. We have plenty of acres and we can plant more acres if needed. We don’t have to rely on some other country or some other industry to provide a product for us.”
MFiber’s ingredients are also competitively priced. The company’s Miscanthus grass fiber ingredients are roughly half the price per lb compared to powdered cellulose. Aside from the cost savings opportunity, MFiber also offers processors the chance to preserve natural resources. The company estimates that by replacing approximately 17.5 million lbs of powdered cellulose with the same amount of MFiber, processors can save more than $7 million in costs, as well as over 150,000 trees and 2.6 billion gallons of water.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the paper manufacturing industry released the second-largest amount of toxins — namely methanol — into the air in 2020. The EPA measures this through a Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, which includes chemicals that cause chronic or significant human health defects such as cancer, as well as adverse environmental effects. According to the agency, the paper manufacturing industry released 114.6 million lbs of TRI chemicals into the air in 2020, making it one of the country’s top air polluters.
In late 2020, the Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC) partnered with MFiber and Trayak to conduct a life cycle analysis (LCA) comparing the sustainability of Miscanthus grass fiber and powdered cellulose. The LCA focused on two phases: the material phase, or the environmental footprint of extracting materials from the environment, and the manufacturing phase, or the impact of converting those materials into final ingredients.
According to the research, for every 1 million lbs, MFiber was found to use 86% less fossil fuels, 98% less water, and release 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than powdered cellulose.
Specifically, replacing 1 million lbs of powdered cellulose with 1 million lbs of MFiber could save more than 153.2 million gallons of water and prevent more than 496,000 kg of CO2 emissions. Less reliance on fossil fuels could save enough energy needed to power 169 averages homes per year, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to the impact of nearly 1.2 million miles driven by passenger vehicles annually. Additionally, replacing powdered cellulose with MFiber sequesters enough carbon in one year to equal 12,614 acres of US forests.
“There are so many companies that are really embracing sustainability and see us as a way to help them reach their sustainability goals,” Allphin said.
MFiber is a Champion Level member of PSC, partnering with the organization to continually assess its sustainability performance and strategies. In 2021, the company’s sustainable business practices earned MFiber the title of Best-In-Category Ingredient Supplier for PSC’s Positive Impact Program.
Teaching an old dog new tricks
While powdered cellulose may be recognized as a conventional source of insoluble fiber in pet food formulations, MFiber hopes to change this narrative with Miscanthus grass.
Research conducted by Kansas State University found Miscanthus fiber performed on par with powdered cellulose from a functional nutrition perspective, in palatability and during processing. The University of Illinois also conducted research showing that Miscanthus fiber can offer gut health benefits for pets when combined with beet pulp or tomato pomace fibers.
According to Allphin, MFiber is seen in hundreds of pet food and treat formulations on the market today, covering the gamut from dry and wet diets to freeze-dried treats and injection-molded chews. The ingredient can be included in functional formulations, including those targeting skin and coat health, digestibility, gas and other gastrointestinal issues, hairball control for cats, and weight management.
“Seven years ago, companies might have been the first one to start putting MFiber in their pet food,” Allphin said. “But now, if you're not using it in pet food, you're kind of behind the ball.”
The company currently distributes a majority of its product domestically, with about 10% of its business going to international customers in Asia, Europe and South America. With MFiber growing more than 20% over the last two years, the opportunity to shift the paradigm for pet food fiber is no distant dream.
“Consumers want an all-natural product, they want clean labels, they want whole foods on product labels,” Allphin said. “We take this grass and all we do is grind it, and then your pet eats the whole thing. MFiber is a product that meets the expectations of customers.”
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