META, MO. — Today’s pet food marketplace may be a dog-eat-dog world, but the food safety aspect ought to be more of a collaborative effort, according to Michele Sayles, Ph.D., executive director of food safety and quality at Diamond Pet Foods. This expert microbiologist has spent her career keeping people and pets safe from food safety and quality hazards, and she remains keen on new technologies and innovative methods available to get the job done.
“Our goal is that there is no competitive advantage to food safety, and we work together to drive that forward and produce safe products,” she said.
In the following Q&A, Sayles shares exciting projects she has been working on and what they mean for the health and safety of furry family members around the world.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Sayles: I primarily oversee quality assurance, sanitation and food safety. I also work as the lead scientific researcher for all aspects of food innovation and food safety for every ingredient that goes into each formula at Diamond Pet Foods. One novel project I have been working on for the last five years is mapping the microbiome of the production environments at each of Diamond Pet Foods’ production facilities. This allows Diamond to better understand and control the individual environments in which their foods are produced so they can provide the safest products to consumers and their pets.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Sayles: I started as a food microbiologist and was in the food industry for a number of years. I always had a food safety and food microbiology focus, and that focus shifted over to the pet industry, where I got involved with a pet food company about 16 years ago. Around 2006, there was a lot of attention around pet food. The role of pets had started to shift as they became more incorporated into the family. There was a new outlook for pet food to be treated with the same microbiological expectations as human food.
As a human microbiologist and food safety expert, I was recruited to come into the pet food realm and convert pet food plants into facilities with the same microbiological expectations as human food plants, including food safety expectations and programs, microbiological testing, sanitation, separation control and more.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Sayles: When I first got into pet food, one of the biggest challenges I faced was competitiveness within the industry. However, it is awesome now to see various pet food companies, trade organizations, regulatory groups and academic institutions coming together to share research initiatives, collaborative projects and findings. Our goal is that there is no competitive advantage to food safety, and we work together to drive that forward and produce safe products.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Sayles: While at Diamond Pet Foods, I have had the opportunity to do additional research projects, expanding my knowledge in new technologies to find out how we can utilize these technologies in a beneficial way. One example would be the area of metagenomics. I’ve not only been able to research practical applications of metagenomics within our facilities, but I also have been able to develop partnerships and collaborate with different organizations on various metagenomic research projects. Results of these projects have really helped us gain a better understanding of the world of microbiology and how impactful tools, such as metagenomics, are in helping us not only troubleshoot but gain a better understanding and appreciation of the complex ecologies of microorganisms and how they can impact our manufacturing environments.
It has been an amazing opportunity to work within this area of metagenomics, which has influenced the work that we’ve done with probiotics. With probiotics, I am looking specifically at how we can use “good bugs” (probiotics) to enhance the microbiomes of our production facilities. We have not only studied the effects of probiotics on enhancing the microbiome of the production environment but also to ultimately enhance dogs’ gut health. It has been some of the coolest research that I’ve been able to do. For me, that’s been the biggest accomplishment — being able to do these experiments and help Diamond stay on the cutting edge with technology, especially in the world of microbiology.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Sayles: What is currently top of mind for us is the consistency of the supply chain and making sure that, if new ingredient streams are explored, any new ingredient goes through a rigorous hazard analysis.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
“We operate with the mentality that this is human food and should be up to the same standards,” said Michele Sayles, Diamond Pet Foods.
Sayles: The amount of testing and quality assurance programs that are involved in our manufacturing is something people may not realize. We operate with the mentality that this is human food and should be up to the same standards. We routinely test and monitor our manufacturing process — pre-production, production and post-production — and work closely with our supply chains to confirm ingredient safety. Our facilities adhere to stringent quality and food safety protocols, have a dedicated quality assurance and food safety staff, and follow GMP protocols. By implementing scientific and technological advancements, we have developed a comprehensive food safety system that ensures our pet food is healthy, safe and nutritious. Some of our safety and quality tests include:
- 3,458 mycotoxin tests per week
- 1,538 microbiological tests per week
- 268 oxidative stability tests per week
- 5,520 ingredient nutritional tests per week
- 40,095 finished product nutritional tests per week
We also implement a test and hold program, in which product tests are conducted by an ISO-certified laboratory. We use scientifically and statistically based sampling methods referencing standards set by the International Commission on the Microbiological Specification for Foods (ICMSF). Samples are collected and tested for every product produced. Every sample is kept for a time equal to the guaranteed shelf life of the product, typically 12 months.
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.
Sayles: I am definitely more of a dog person. I have a Border Collie-Queensland Heeler mix who is 14 years old and loved tagging along on horseback rides when she was younger.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Sayles: When I first started, the industry was pretty male dominated, but we have more women food safety managers now, and we really have embraced that. My advice would be not to feel intimidated. If you know your business and you know your job description and you’re confident in what you do, that will help you be the most successful.
Michele Sayles has more than two decades of experience in the realm of food safety, quality and microbiology. She has held various positions with major food and pet food companies throughout her career. Sayles earned her bachelor’s degree from California Polytechnic State University, followed by her master’s from Kansas State University and a Ph.D. in food microbiology from Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is very active with the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP), the newly formed Animal and Pet Food Safety Professional Development Group, the Pet Food Alliance, and serves as the co-chair of the Product Safety Committee for the Pet Food Institute.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.