Strange Excitement

and cottage cheese

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Tell the truth: Who among you would get elated at the possibility of taking a trip to Utah, say, to visit a dog food factory? Oh, never mind; you guys are probably just as weird as me! I guess this is a backhand way of bragging that I got to go to Utah and see a pet food canning plant! Yippee!

And, to make the holiday season complete for me, I get to go to Chicago and see another cannery (and attend the famous H.H. Backer pet products industry show), and then go to New York and see some more dry dog food get made. I’m so excited.

Part of the thrill for me is getting to see processes that I’ve only read and interviewed people about. It’s definitely a different experience to go and see something for yourself. No matter how assiduously I have questioned a pet food executive, asking him or her to slowly but metaphorically “walk” me through a plant, describing each manufacturing step and challenge along the way, and no matter how enthusiastic that person is about proper pet food production, it’s not as educational as actually walking through a plant.

For one thing, in this and the handful of other plants I’ve gotten to tour, I’ve gotten to see the raw ingredients of dog food: huge tubs of chilled chicken, giant blocks of frozen meats, bins of granular poultry meal. Silos of grain flour. Sacks that are bigger than my car, full of potatoes. In the case of a company whose foods contain carrots, apples, and cottage cheese, I got to see the boxes of carrots, bushels of apples, and immense tubs of cottage cheese. Not that I doubted it, but, hey! It was all great to see. Seeing the areas and the machines and the people that do the processing is helpful, too. How clean are the floors, and the machines themselves? Where are all the places that a foreign object could possibly contaminate the food, and what can and does the manufacturer do to stop that? It’s one thing to have that conversation on the phone, and another to have it while standing on the production floor next to a clacking assembly line of shiny cans, full of dog food, whizzing along to the part of the machine that seals them closed.

There are so many details that I’m finding fascinating. What sort of laboratory testing do they do, where is the equipment, who operates it, how often – and what happens if they get a poor test result? Can the pet food company executive find her way from one area of the contract manufacturing plant to the next? Can he explain the advantages of the shiny new mechanism the plant manager is showing us? And the people working on the line – do they have a busy, absorbed, competent demeanor, or are they wandering around with that “temp worker” look of being lost?

I’ll be discussing what I’ve learned on these tours in upcoming articles. Suffice to say for now, as you could guess, I’ve been nothing but impressed by the facilities I’ve seen so far. But the places I’ve seen are the places that invited me, not the ones who steadfastly refuse to allow any observers in their plants.

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