By all accounts, supply chain issues will be with us for some time, not just in the pet food industry but for the economy as a whole. In fact, the current situation is evolving into one of those paradigms, not only disrupting the status quo but changing it for good.
The havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the downside of some common practices such as just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing and inventory control, forcing some businesses to revise their operating strategies. Another area that prompts questions (including government) is the significant consolidation that has led to the dominance of a few large companies over different industries; When they had to be temporarily discontinued, the effect was considerable.
What does this scenario portend for the future of industries like pet food? New technologies may provide some answers and a way forward, such as JIT and similar concepts and technologies aided and advanced past business models and practices.
Alternative pet food proteins include new technologies
One potential game-changer for pet food specifically lies with animal-based proteins. Current supply chain problems are only complicating a situation that already exists: as human and pet populations grow around the world, all those mouths are competing for the same protein sources, in varying amounts. Not likely to be enough.
“…the units of pet food produced in the US are increasing at a faster rate than animals killed for human consumption…” researchers from Kansas State University wrote in a new study. “This is important because if these growth rates continue, there will be a point where there will not be enough animal protein-based ingredients to meet the needs of pet food production.”
And the study only addressed US production, not global cattle slaughter, so the problem is likely to get worse around the world. The answer is no to raise more livestock, as the Earth can only support so much of that type of animal husbandry, especially as climate change worsens (driven at least partly by that livestock production).
Rather, alternative sources of protein may provide a better way forward. For example, plant-based proteins continue to gain steam in terms of development and consumer interest. Insect production is also receiving more research and investment, possibly allowing it to reach larger scale and better affordability at some point.
Far from being accepted and economical in scale, yet with much investment in technology, cultured (aka cell-based or cultivated) proteins show great promise. In fact, some experts believe they hold a brighter future for pet food than insect proteins. Fermentation techniques — think fungus — also have potential.
Technology to help supply pet food packaging materials
Pet food manufacturers have also experienced serious supply chain issues with aluminum for certain types of packaging materials, such as cans or plastic bags. In this case, another technology may provide relief: digital printing. Not only does this provide a very fast turnaround time, but few companies in the region are able to source all their ingredients locally (or at least in the same country).
For example, Rostar, based in Wausau, Wisconsin, USA, uses a digital press to print packaging labels and graphics directly onto empty material, whether it is flexible plastic packaging, rollstock or tin cans. “In Wausau where we’re located, we have a partner company that actually produces most of the ingredients we use,” Rostar’s marketing manager Sadie Leu said during an Ask the Pet Food Pro Zoom chat. “They produce it on roles. And so we have a really great relationship with our supplier, and we’re working closely with them.”
(That working relationship also includes R&D on creating more sustainable, even compostable, packaging materials, according to Rostar’s product expert Paula Kuhnert, who participated in a Zoom chat with Lew.)
Current technology, at least for Rostar, limits the size of pet food bags they can produce via digital printing; Right now, they specialize in treat bags. So it’s not an immediate answer for the industry or most pet food companies, but perhaps it does provide a glimpse at the future and the new order where technology helps address supply chain problems—or better yet, prevent them in the first place. But stops.