NEW CENTURY, KAN. — Lina M. Ramirez, Ph.D., is a food scientist by trade and a dog owner by choice. Currently senior applications scientist and project lead for IFF pet food team, Ramirez’s career falls at the intersection of these two passions. She entered the food industry with the goal of solving everyday challenges in health, product development and research & development, and continues this charge by delivering on-trend ingredient solutions for the pet food industry.
“Human grade ingredients such as probiotics, enzymes, antioxidants, flavors etc. are key for Gen Z and Millennial pet owners,” she noted.
In the following Q&A, Ramirez highlights these and other key trends, points out the No. 1 challenge she and other ingredient suppliers face today, and shares her advice for other up-and-coming industry leaders.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Ramirez: I am a senior application scientist and project lead for the pet food group at IFF in New Century, Kan.
A biochemist by training and originally from Colombia (South America), I hold a Ph.D. in food science from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in food science and human nutrition from Clemson University. After my doctorate I did 1 year of post-doctoral in the Animal Science Department at Oklahoma State University. After my post-doctoral time, I was looking for industry jobs where I was able to apply my research and product development skills. I wanted to make an impact on society, solving issues or challenges we come across in our daily lives. My role at IFF has provided me with many opportunities to apply my research, analytical and development skills — bringing new products and new ingredients to the pet food industry and supporting our customers to achieve their goals.
IFF is a global industry leader in ingredients for food, beverage, scent, health and biosciences. We develop and sell enzymes, probiotics, hydrocolloids, proteins, emulsifiers, multi-functional foods, flavors, systems, antioxidants, botanicals and betaine for production and companion animals. These products help to increase raw material efficiency, phosphorus, and nitrogen, and help in keeping production animals healthy as production practices evolve. For companion animals, these products provide nutritional benefits, aid in manufacturing and/or keep animals healthy.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Ramirez: My career started more than 10 years ago. My first job after my postdoctoral fellowship was as a research scientist for a company in Oklahoma. I did challenge studies, shelf-life studies in chicken meals and kibbles, and pet food analyses.
I then moved to Hodges, SC., and worked as a R&D project manager with a global company that deals with pet food. My responsibilities included qualification of new raw materials, ingredients, working with customers to optimize/customize new products (palatants), and conducting palatability studies to support customer demands.
Six years ago, I joined DuPont’s food protection team, where I focused on fermentates in New Century, Kan. My responsibilities in the group ranged from experimental design of projects to completion in different food applications areas such as plant-based yogurt, meat alternatives, dairy, meat, bakery, culinary and pet food. In addition, I assisted customers in North America and Latin America by participating in plant trials, answering technical questions, and conducting seminars and presentations. I also coordinated intellectual property applications of novel research to identify new product opportunities.
Currently, I am working at IFF in the pet food group at New Century. Some of my responsibilities include designing, leading and executing pet food studies in a laboratory setting, including sourcing required ingredients, leading the development of new fermentates for pet food products, reagents and materials. I can apply my skills in new product development using our ingredients and flavors, technical support for regulatory authorizations and palatability tests.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Ramirez: Professionally, one of the biggest challenges I have experienced and am experiencing is a shortage of ingredient supply. This challenge is affecting all of us — many colleagues in the pet food industry are in the same boat.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Ramirez: The merger of DuPont’s Nutrition & Biosciences and IFF brought a lot of opportunities for innovation. Our team was able to create new developments such as a Peanut Butter and Jelly concept, using several ingredients from our portfolio such as flavors and inclusions to maintain the taste, color and functionality of fruit and vegetables enzymes for flavor creation, and hydrolyzed soy protein for digestibility to help our customers to achieve results. Next steps are going to be to support our supplement lines.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Ramirez: Shareables – snacks of human-grade dog treats that can be split between a pet parent and their dog. For many pet owners, their fur babies are like their family members. As more consumers are making informed choices when it comes to food and health, pet owners are also making better decisions for their pets by choosing products that are safe for them to eat.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Ramirez: The most important trend right now is sustainability. Pet owners are increasingly more concerned about protecting the planet, which translates into increased potential for more sustainable packaging and ingredients. In addition, pet owners and the younger generations are increasingly interested in alternative proteins, which are gaining attention in the pet food market.
Pet humanization has been defined as a feeling/expression where pet parents treat their companion animals like children and are highly receptive to human-grade products. This trend has increased from the physical services, such as daycare and grooming, to high quality food and toys.
Health, wellness, and palatability — pet parents continue to invest in healthy claims for their pets, including claims of fresh, natural, and diets containing functional components intended to deliver more than fundamental nutrition. Human grade ingredients such as probiotics, enzymes, antioxidants, flavors etc. are key for Gen Z and Millennial pet owners.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Ramirez: I think a lot of consumers may not be aware of the stringent pet food regulation and the required standards for pet food manufacturing. In fact, the regulations for pet food ingredients and manufacturing are a lot stricter than food for human consumption. Pet food manufacturing involves a lot of important ingredients such as meat, meat by-products, cereals, grain, vitamins, and minerals to be successful.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Ramirez: Be open to new concepts and disciplines. Create a supportive and reliable network. Ask questions, speak up, and do not forget to have fun.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Ramirez: I am a dog person. I have an 11-year-old Great Dane named Savannah, and a 3-year-old Bernedoodle named Willow.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Ramirez: Be honest, work hard, and never give up on your goals. Be a great team member, learn and share knowledge, speak up and challenge yourself to get better in your field. It is okay to make mistakes — learn from those and move on. It is part of the learning process.
Lina M. Ramirez, Ph.D., is currently a senior applications specialist and project lead for the pet food team at IFF. Prior to joining IFF, Ramirez served as senior applications scientist for food protection at DuPont Nutrition & Health. She joined IFF following the merger of IFF and DuPont’s Nutrition & Biosciences division in early 2021. Earlier in her career, she held R&D positions with Symrise and IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group. Ramirez earned master’s degree food science and human nutrition from Clemson University. She went on to receive her Ph.D. in food science from Oklahoma State University.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.