ATLANTA — More than 300 pet food industry professionals will gather next week for the American Feed Industry Association’s (AFIA) 2023 Pet Food Conference, to be held Jan. 24 in tandem with the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The annual one-day conference will cover a wide breadth of timely topics, showcase cutting-edge student research, award longtime industry leaders and, ultimately, bring the industry together.

Louise Calderwood, director of regulatory affairs at the AFIA, told Pet Food Processing she expects more than 320 attendees at this year’s conference, from the United States and abroad.

“And what we find with this conference is, if people register, they come,” she said.

“The neat thing about this conference is that it's built every year based on industry input,” she continued. “Our committee members come together to provide us with the topics that they want to see and actually suggest the speakers. Every year is fresh, because we're always responding to the changes that we see and that our members are addressing on a day-to-day basis.”

Calderwood herself knew sustainability needed to be on the agenda, and her committee suggested a specific subtopic to be addressed at this year’s Pet Food Conference — Scope Three. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scope Three Emissions, “also referred to as value chain emissions, often represent the majority of an organization’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

“What we know with our members is that some ingredient providers’ Scope One is actually a manufacturer’s Scope Three,” Calderwood explained. “We'll be building on that interplay of how the various scopes work across manufacturing and ingredient provisions, and really doing a deep dive into that.”

Experts on the sustainability panel include Temis Coral, sustainability practice lead at John Beath Environmental, LLC; Nicholas Rozzi, Ph.D., worldwide director of product development at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc.; and Terry Ward, Ph.D., global director of sustainability at Zinpro. The panel will be moderated by Lara Moody, executive director of the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER).

As in years past, three graduate students have been invited to present their research to Pet Food Conference attendees. The research presented at this year’s conference will address one theory behind the potential link between grain-free dog foods and dilated cardiomyopathy, as well as the nutritional merits of two emerging ingredients: dried brewer’s yeast and insect-based protein.

“This was my idea to bring in a couple of years ago and it’s still one of my favorite parts of the conference,” Calderwood said. “The students that we chose are absolutely exemplary. They are from outstanding programs. They are the ones that their professors have said, ‘This is the research; this is what we want to get out in front.’ The fact that the research is so fresh and innovative and forward-looking is just a high point of the conference, and I know that our members really appreciate that as well.”

Elise Bokshowan, M.S., of the University of Saskatchewan, will present on the “Link Between Soluble Fiber and Diet-Related Heart Failure in Beagles;” Vanessa Da la Guardia-Hidrogo, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois will present on “The Role of Dried Brewer’s Yeast in Gastrointestinal Health and Immune Function of Dogs;” and Meredith Smola, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois will present on “Amino Acid Digestibility and Protein Quality of Mealworm-Based Ingredients Using the Precision-Fed Cecectomized Rooster Assay.”

Additionally, a handful of undergraduates have been chosen to create and display research posters, which will be available to browse during the Networking Lunch mid-way through the conference. Calderwood extolled the value of sharing student research at the conference as mutually beneficial for the students and the industry at large.

“Another key piece for this is that our members are always looking to hire that next best and brightest young employee, and what a great way to showcase just that,” Calderwood said. “The networking piece for the students — not just for the three that are on stage, but also the for the ones that are providing their posters — it's such a powerful opportunity for them. The three that get to be up there on stage, they'll knock your socks off. They're pretty darn good.”

When asked which topic she is most excited for, Calderwood replied, “It’s hard to pick just one.” With so many hard-hitting topics on the agenda, each piece and presentation paints part of a larger picture, depicting what is most important to industry members now and in the near future.

The conference will kick off with a presentation by Worth Turner, chief executive officer at Custom Veterinary Services, detailing “The Impacts of Mergers & Acquisitions on the Supply Chain.” Next up is “Approaches to Aflatoxin Sampling,” an increasingly in-demand topic to be presented by Scott Hawks, senior consultant at ToxStrategies.

Following a short morning break, the conference will reconvene with Nancy Rawson, acting director and president at Monell Chemical Senses Center, who will present on “The Flavor World of Companion Animals.” More specifically, Rawson’s presentation will cover research on how flavor impacts metabolism, Calderwood shared.

Students will take the stage from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. to share their research, followed by a presentation of the 2023 Friend of Pet Food Award and Video, which will be awarded to an industry professional who has made significant contributions to the pet food industry’s growth and advancement.

Past recipients of the Friend of Pet Food Award, which was first introduced at the 2020 Pet Food Conference, include Kate Shoveller, Ph.D., of the University of Guelph, and Gail Kuhlman, Ph.D., of Mars Petcare (2020); Galen Rokey of Wenger Manufacturing, Inc. and Michael Panasevich of Summit Ridge Farms (2021); and George Fahey, Ph.D., and Dennis Jewell, Ph.D. (2022).

After the award presentation, conference attendees will have the chance to network and explore the student research poster section over lunch. In the afternoon, Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief at Petfood Industry, will present on “What’s Next For the Global Pet Food Market? Trends and Outlook,” followed by the sustainability panel on Scope Three emissions.

To wrap up the conference, Jenny Murphy, deputy director of foods at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine’s (CVM) Office of Surveillance and Compliance, will provide an update from the FDA. Calderwood noted the industry will be “hot off of AAFCO,” referring to the 2023 Midyear Meeting held Jan. 17 to 19 directly before the Pet Food Conference, which — paired with Murphy’s FDA update — will provide industry members with interplay between the two organizations.

“To me, the piece of the conference that is so rewarding is that, in a one-day show, we have topics that are important to every sector of the industry,” Calderwood said. “Even if your specialty is marketing, or ingredient acquisition, there is going to be information here that will help you perform better in your job, because the information is always so fresh and so relevant. That’s what makes this show special. In a single day you can get a snapshot of the really hot issues all across the industry.”

Find the full agenda for AFIA’s 2023 Pet Food Conference here, and more details about the upcoming conference on the Pet Food Conference website.

Read more about pet food and treat industry events.