factory---but to a dog writer who writes about dog nutrition, a trip to tour Hill's research lab and manufacturing plant was the next best thing.
So I donned my ruby slippers and set off in a whirlwind (get it? huh? get it? Yeah, I hate when people say that) to Kansas!
I'm going to skip the part about research and development and cats and dogs and kittens and puppies ---we'll come back to them in a later post---and get to the part that really fascinated me: making the stuff. Because I've seen research and cats and dogs and kittens and puppies, but I've never seen dog food made. Actually, if you know my cooking skills, you are probably shouting, "And you've never seen human food made, either!" which I think is really pretty mean of you, and wrong, too. I have many times watched the sandwich artists at Subway make human food. Artists. But I digress.
By the time of the tour, we'd already discussed the
ingredient list, and how the ingredient vendors are chosen on the basis of various tests and quality controls and ingredient requirements; how dog food manufacturers must meet all sorts of regulations and pass all sorts of inspections; and how chicken is the same as chicken meal before said chicken has all the water sucked out of him but chicken, not chicken meal, looks better in the ingredient list. So Hill's brings their chickens in pre-dehydration; I was pretty sure the chickens had already passed on to a better place before embarking on their trip, but just in case, I wondered if they would be subjecting them to little sweat boxes.
Just to be clear, I am not one who enjoys knowing what goes into my own food. If it looks anatomical, I don't eat it. I prefer the illusion that all my food grows on trees or in microwaves. So in anticipation of trucks dumping loads of chicken heads or sheep guts into immense boiling vats, I ate a light breakfast of fruit. Can't go wrong with fruit. Well, except for the part where I was starving, but...
At the plant---which looked suspiciously like Emerald
City in the distance---I donned rubber steel-toed shoe covers, hair net, safety goggles, hard hat, and lab coat. More visions of sloshing through animal entrails while dodging errant body parts danced through my head. But I was tough, I could do this. We made our way to the unloading area. I prepared for flies and slop and mayhem; what I found was...
One truck, inside an enclosed bay, with one employee and one truck driver, both hair netted as they watch the truck dispense rice into a bay, from which the rice was sucked up into a storage area. This wasn't the truck's first stop; it's load had to pass an inspection
station located well away from the building. It had to drive inside the unloading bay and have the outer building doors closed before it could start unloading. Computers regulated where the materials went; all ingredients, I learned, were bar coded and their containers were also bar coded so that only certain ingredients could be placed in or removed from the appropriate bins. Without the correct match, the bins refuse to open, so there's no chance of an ingredient mix-up. The ingredients aren't stored in silos, as I'd expected, but instead stored inside to protect them from moisture and other environmental factors.
OK, so the unloading area was a letdown. No flies, no
gnats, not a friggin' bollweevil. No blood, no guts, no smell. But there was still the processing part. This is
where I would surely see the vats of animal parts, heads bobbing, stirred into a porridge by workers who kept losing shoes, dentures and excess body parts in
But first, we had to pass through an air lock. And walk
through a shoe sterilizer. And wash our hands. Wait---an air lock? Turns out the building is really three buildings; they separate the building where raw materials exist from the building where the materials are mixed and sterilized and processed from the building where they are bagged and shipped. And from building to building there's an airlock, with the air always flowing from the more sterile building to the less sterile building (you can feel it when you go through the door). Nothing--- food, tools, trolleys, nothing---goes from less sterile to more sterile unless it's been sterilized. They even maintain separate maintenance rooms and tools for each building; whoever thought of a hammer as a potential pathogen vector, the dreaded Typhoid Toolbelt of the hardware world? Who knew?
But back to the vats of stewing parts.
Um...there weren't any. The ingredients were mixed in a separate place, with computers and machines doing the work, not workers or oompa-loompas. No vats. No measuring cups. No singing. No people! After being
heated to, um, I forgot the actual temperature but let's just call it "hellfire hot" and pushed into a tiny passageway at, um, I forgot the actual psi but let's just call it "squashed" the pathogens are all, um, let's call it "really dead." Then the food is extruded, dried and enrobed (my favorite new term, fancy for "covered in flavorants" as in "She was enrobed in chocolate.") All untouched by human hands. Or oompa-loompa hands, watch hands, or (probably) even the hands of God. I had a feeling I wasn't in Kansas any more...except, you know, for the part where I was...
Finally, a worker emerged! I'd started to suspect this
was all a vast front and no actual people or dog food were actually involved. He let some of the food escape and took a batch for testing--fresh and hot from the extruder! The nuggets were tested for size, moisture content, this, that--I forgot, so let's just call it "a bunch of stuff," and it was taken to a lab where all sorts of computer screens were reading out all sorts of stuff---this did not look like any kitchen I'd ever seen. Testing occurs at various levels of production every half hour. In other words, it pretty much never stops anywhere on the line.
So, now the food is dried---not too much, not too little.
If it's too much, the texture is bad. If it's too little, it could encourage mold growth in the bag. So it's tested again. It's whisked to the next building, where it's automatically dispensed into bags. The bags then go through a metal detector to make sure no foreign metal parts have somehow made it through and into a bag---if that were to happen, other instruments could be used to isolate the single kibble that may contain it so the source could be traced. And regardless, random bags are opened and the food tested yet again.
Okay, so all my preconceived notions about dog food
packing were, um, let's just call them "wrong." The dog food plant makes my kitchen look unsanitary by comparison, and if you know me, you know I have a clean thing going on when it comes to food.
But we weren't finished. The bags then went to the
warehouse, where they spend an average of five days. Finally, the oompa-loompas! There were people with forklifts and more people and more forklifts and food going here and up and right and left and the building was about the size of Cobo Hall, and certainly larger than where they had the AKC Invitational this year (the whole place is 585,000 square feet). But still, no singing. I really think there should be singing.
Finally, my tour was over and I was treated to lunch that had been brought in from a local eatery. I somewhat reluctantly ate it, my mind going longingly to the bags of dog food I'd just seen---because I had no idea where the food on my plate had come from, but I KNEW the food in those bags was clean!