A Trip to Hill’s

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Earlier this week, with no warning or context, I posted on WDJ’s Facebook page that I was visiting the Hill’s (Science Diet, Prescription Diet) research and development campus in Kansas, and would also be visiting two of its production facilities. I was excited! And up until almost the hour that I left for the airport, I had been finishing the April issue of WDJ – I hadn’t had a chance to post something to let you know in advance about my trip and the reasons for it. I was just so psyched to be there! Historically, Hill’s was a very private company, which limited communications with non-veterinarians. A new wave of management appears to be changing that policy.

The first reason for my visit: I’m working on an article about the research that some pet food companies do as part of their research and development as well as for nutritional adequacy and palatability testing. So, as part of the research for that article, I toured the facility where all the Hill’s cats, kittens, dogs, and cats live, and got to see how they are cared for and spend their time. Two years ago, I toured the equivalent facility, with equal access, for Procter & Gamble, to see where that company does all the research on its Iams and Eukanuba diets.  About five years ago, I was able to tour the much smaller facility where Natura (not yet owned by P&G) tested its diets (for palatability and digestibility) on its own colony of dogs and cats, right next to its production facility in Nebraska.  And I’ll be working to find out what other companies are conducting similar work, and how.

The second reason for my visit: I was invited, along with a number of other journalists and pet bloggers, to visit Hill’s R&D facility. Hill’s offered to pay for my flight, transportation, and lodging. My publisher’s policy, which we’ve never broken, is that we cannot accept any such sponsorship. I flew, drove, and stayed at a local hotel on Belvoir Media Group’s dime – though I did accept (as part of the group) two dinners and two lunches that were offered by Hill’s (and got to talk to Hill’s upper management, nutritionists, formulators, and veterinarians at each meal). Hill’s can confirm I was the last one sitting at the tables with the Hill’s staff at every meal 😉 For me, the meals were the perfect unstructured opportunity to really talk to these folks.

As you know, I’m not a fan of the type of ingredients that Hill’s uses, and that’s not going to change. But I had an opportunity to discuss – directly from the two people currently most responsible for what goes into the Hill’s diets – why they use what they use, and it was interesting. I’ll be sharing that information with you over time. Remarkably, both were familiar with WDJ’s food criticism, and both shared with me what their views were about my coverage of dog food. It was a very honest, highly productive, and useful discussion. I don’t think any of us changed our minds about anything, but we certainly understand each other’s opinions and motivations better and are respectful of those positions.

When the opportunity to see the Hill’s R&D facility was offered to me, I indicated that I would interested, but would only commit to the trip if I could also see one of Hill’s food production facilities. I’ve seen more than a dozen dog food plants now, but I’ve never seen one run by one of the corporate giants, dedicated to making only its diets, and I’ve yearned for that opportunity so I could compare what I’ve seen at smaller facilities and co-manufacturing facilities. I was aware that Hill’s had recently built a new dry food production facility in Emporia, Kansas, and knew that it was about an hour away from Topeka (where the R&D facility is located). The company readily agreed to the request. (A side note: I knew there were two other food production facilities in Emporia. One was recently sold, and its management is a bit up in the air. I tried to gain access to the other, a wet food co-packing plant I’ve wanted to see for a decade now, but was denied access.)

Once in Topeka, I was given a bundle of information about Hill’s and learned that Hill’s sole North American wet food production facility is located in Topeka – something I hadn’t been aware of. I’ve seen far fewer canning facilities than dry food production facilities and REALLY wanted to see Hill’s canned plant. On Tuesday morning, I asked whether I could add also see that facility – and the company agreed.

Now that I’ve seen those facilities, I can (and will) report on the differences I’ve observed about these high-volume plants that are dedicated to one company’s products. They were pretty impressive — though, again, I’m not a huge fan of some of the ingredients used in Hill’s diets – the cleanliness and quality control at these plants (even the 106-year-old wet food plant) exceeded anything I’ve seen before.

All in all, it was a highly educational trip, and I’ll be sharing everything I learned with you.

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