The pet food market is a fiercely competitive one, where many food companies take advantage of the lax marketing laws to make their food appear to be the absolute best. In the veterinary field we spend a lot of time constantly increasing and updating our knowledge about nutrition; as nutrition is a vital component of your pet’s health. The diets carried in our clinic are ones we know go through vigorous testing and are made by companies that are open and uphold extremely high standards for themselves. Recently our lead nutrition consult, technologist Brianna, went on a tour of the Royal Canin plant. Below is what she learned.
by: Brianna deVries
I was flown out to the Royal Canin Plant in Guelph, Ontario along with other technicians and support staff from Western Canada.
First off I want to say that Royal Canin is dedicated to the environment and protecting it and it’s resources.
When we arrived at the plant the first thing I noticed or should I say, didn’t notice, was the smell of kibble. We all took a deep breath, but couldn’t detect an unpleasant odor. This was thanks to Royal Canin’s odor treatment system. The plant air is filtered through bio filters that use naturally occurring bacteria to destroy odor causing compounds before being released into the environment. This process uses very little energy, requires no hazardous chemicals and doesn’t produce any harmful waste products.
Once inside we all met in one of the conference rooms where we received an overview of the plant and the safety gear we would be wearing. Since the process of making the diets goes from dirty to clean we were going to see the process in reverse to prevent any contamination. We got dressed in our lab coats, safety glasses, hair nets, hard hats and safety vests, then we were on our way.
The plant is broken down into different color coded sections. Before entering the packaging area we headed into a small room to wash up. We put on white shoe covers, washed our hands and finished with hand sanitizer. We were now geared up, clean and ready to learn.
In the packaging area the diets flow through a hopper and into bags. Before the bags are sealed they are flushed with nitrogen (a non-reactive, natural part of the air we breathe). Replacing the oxygen in the bag with nitrogen minimizes the potential for fat oxidation and product rancidity. The flushing process is performed three times to ensure that the level of oxygen never goes over the maximum allowable limit.
Royal Canin prides themselves on quality control. Before the diets are packaged special testing magnets are placed in the batch of food. All of the sealed bags pass through three different metal detectors to help ensure that there are no metal fragments in the kibble. If all of the magnets are not recovered the entire batch is rejected. Random bags are selected for further testing such as checking oxygen levels, appearance and consistency of kibble, or placed in a water bath to ensure the bags are properly sealed. A sample from each batch is taken and kept for 18 months. Then if they ever receive multiple complaints about a diet from the same batch they can go back to their sample on file and do further testing. This helps determine if there was a problem in the manufacturing or if it was a problem that occurred after the product left the plant. The bags of food that have been rejected (had a magnet, were underweight, not properly sealed, etc.) and the bags that were selected for random testing do not go to waste. The food is used as fertilizer/compost and the packaging is mulched and used as a fuel pellet.
One of the things we noticed was that there were beautiful pictures of pets hanging on the walls and the packaging area had windows to let the sun in. What we learned was that all of the pictures on the walls throughout the plant are employee pets and the pictures go through a rotation. The picture of the pet also stays in the same area that the owner works in. So if you work in the packaging area your pet’s professionally done photo will be rotated through that area. We also learned that all the pet’s images used in Royal Canin’s brochures, website, etc. are owned by employees of the company.
After seeing the packaging and testing process it was off to the extrusion room, or as our tour guide called it, ‘the playdoh press’. We weren’t allowed to enter the actual room, but did get to go into the control room and see the machines through the large windows. Inside the room were all of the computers that operate the machines. Due to Royal Canin’s kibble technology each diet has their own extrusion plate to create the unique kibble.
Royal Canin also has an interesting drying process. Instead of having the kibble dry on a conveyor belt it goes into a drying silo. As the kibble rotates in the silo it drops
into the lower levels as the kibble shrinks. This process uses the power of gravity and ensures the kibble are uniformly dried. Once the kibbles are dry a special coating is applied. The coating depends on the particular diet. It could be a mixture of omega fatty acids, green lipped mussel, dental coating or palatants (a coating that helps increase the desire of the pet to eat the food). The employees take a sample of each batch and mark the date and time. The kibble is then checked for uniform color, size and texture. We had the opportunity to try warm feline urinary s/o fresh from the extruder. It tasted like an unsalted triscuit.
Due to the coating that is applied to the kibble it is recommended to keep the diet in its original packaging and not in a plastic container. The oils in the coating can absorb into the plastic and become rancid. Royal Canin uses natural preservatives such as rosemary extract, so if there is any old kibble at the bottom of the plastic container when new food is poured in, the old food can become moldy and feed on the new food. If you are going to store the diet in a different container be sure there is no old food and thoroughly wash it with soap and water between bags.
Next was on to the lab where the initial testing is done on incoming raw materials. When a shipment is brought to the plant the ingredients are tested before they are accepted. The samples are taken using a long probe with multiple openings that is stuck several feet into the material, so they are not just testing the top. Royal Canin uses near-infrared spectroscopy to ensure that the ‘fingerprint’ of the incoming raw material matches the data base. If the material passes this initial test it then goes to the larger lab on site for further testing. The driver waits on site until all tests are finished; which can take up to 4 hours. If it doesn’t match the fingerprint on file the shipment is rejected. When materials are rejected they are tested to find out why and Royal Canin then informs the supplier. If the raw materials meet Royal Canin’s high standards it is given a batch number and put into storage. This batch number allows each raw material to be traced back to the bag of food it was used in. All of the suppliers are rigorously audited and regularly monitored. If a raw material from a supplier gets rejected multiple times they are put on probation and can potentially be dropped as a supplier. Royal Canin does have back up suppliers, so when a shipment is rejected they can call their back up supplier.
The last stop of the plant tour was the silos where raw materials are stored and the bins in which vitamins and minerals are stored. Everything had a batch number so all materials can be traced. We were informed that Royal Canin does not store pallets of finished product on site. All diets are made to order, so when one of the distributors such as WDDC (where we order our products through) place an order, Royal Canin then makes and ships the product out. This ensures they are able to send the freshest product possible.
Do you remember those white shoe covers we had to put on at the beginning of the tour? Keep in mind that we were in the packaging area, hallways, the extrusion control room, labs, in where raw materials are stored and even stairwells. There was barely anything on the bottom of our shoe covers! This shows just how clean Royal Canin keeps their facility to prevent any contamination.
We headed back to the conference room where we took off some of our gear. Still keeping our lab coats on and safety glasses we headed outside into the beautiful spring air and walked to their main lab. The larger lab on site performs the other testing on raw materials and the finished product. The lab also does digestibility tests, checks amino acid compositions, etc. They test products that are under investigation, such as a bag returned because of an odd odor or the pet vomited after eating. They also test the mineral content of certain raw materials because of the specificity of microminerals in a diet. An example of why they do this kind of testing is that all carrots are not the same. If you use carrots that were grown in a selenium deficient soil, then you need to supplement the diet, but if they used a shipment of carrots that were grown in selenium rich soil then the diet would now have too much selenium. The analysts are highly trained chemists and go through an extensive validation process to ensure they provide accurate, reliable and repeatable results no matter the type of samples.*
After the large lab tour we headed back to the conference room where we given an opportunity to have a Q & A session with some of the management. They told us that Royal Canin is very conscious about their impact on the environment. They had planned on becoming a zero landfill company by 2015. Through innovation they achieved this goal in 2013, a year and a half ahead of schedule. All of their waste is diverted from the landfills to be re-used, recycled or re-purposed. When it comes to selecting raw materials for their diets they look into the sustainability of the natural resource.
The Saskatchewan Group
It was a fantastic tour that I wish everyone could go on. Royal Canin had nothing to hide from us. They strongly believe in research and what is best for the animal instead of giving in to fads and marketing. They answered all and any questions we had without hesitation. The overall feeling of the tour was positive, enlightening and of course fun.
*Amendment – the original post indicated the analysts were biotechs who trained in France, we have since been informed they are chemists and that although they do go through extensive training, this is not done in France. The blog above has been amended to correct this information.