By Dr. Becker
Last week in part one of my two-part video series, I talked with an expert in phage technology to manage foodborne pathogens, as well as a raw pet food company that is now using phage technology in their products.
Today, continuing the discussion of managing pathogens in the pet food industry, my first guest is Roxanne Stone, Vice President of Research and Development for Answers Pet Food, a family-owned company that makes raw organic diets for dogs and cats. Roxanne’s background is in food safety technology, and she’s passionate about all things fermentation-related. I asked her to talk a bit about her background as a scientist and her family’s pet food company.
“I’m one of the family owners in Answers Pet Food,” explains Roxanne, “and I’m responsible for quite a few things in the company like sourcing, formulation, research and development, and of course, one of the most important aspects, quality control or quality assurance.
I received both my Bachelor's degree and Masters degree in nutrition and food science from Utah State University, in the mid- to late-nineties. I worked for 16 years as a food scientist in many facets of the food industry, including quality control and food testing, until I joined my family to start Answers in 2009.”
I can personally attest to the fact that Answers is truly a family affair and a labor of love.
How Fermentation Works to Control Foodborne Pathogens
In the pet food industry, fresh food producers are required to go above-and-beyond in terms of insuring their diets are safe. There are a few different ways to accomplish this, so I asked Roxanne how her company decided upon the specific pathogen control approach they use.
“We selected fermentation as the methodology to control bad bacteria in raw food,” says Roxanne. “Being a raw food manufacturer, it's difficult. You want to use a method that's going to keep the food raw and fresh and in a living state as much as possible, so fermentation was the perfect fit. It's threefold, really, why we chose it.
It’s absolutely the safest method for pets by far, in my opinion. It’s also the most nutritious way to preserve food, and third, it’s honestly the only method that keeps the food safe from the point of processing all the way to the point at which pets consume it, so it was a no-brainer for us.
Food fermentation and preservation have been around as long as humans have. The fermentation technique has the longest history of safety and efficacy we know of. Since carnivores have such short digestive tracts, they also have short transit times for food in the digestive system, so we want to provide the benefit of pre-digestion.
In the micro-ecosystem of raw, living food, we want to maintain a balance of nutrients. When we use harsh pathogen-killing techniques like heat or high-pressure pasteurization that wipe out all bacteria, good and bad, we no longer have balance in the food’s micro-ecosystem.
Unfortunately, other methods can set food up for post-contamination, where the food can actually become more dangerous if mishandled or temperature-abused along the way. So food fermentation was the perfect fit for manufacturing raw pet food, in my mind, because you get continuous protection all the way through.
When food is inoculated with beneficial bacteria that stay in the micro-ecosystem throughout the production, transit, and storage process, you get that added safety benefit even if the food might be compromised along the way. Because when food leaves our manufacturing facility, it's out of our control.
It goes through distribution and retailers and other hands and conditions before it ever gets to your pet's bowl. So we want to set that food up to be able to handle those conditions. With fermentation, if the food is compromised or gets warm, it’s been primed with beneficial bacteria that overwhelm pathogenic bacteria, not allowing it to grow to infectious levels.
We've done challenge studies on our foods using fermentation, and we're amazed at the success and very confident in the process. We're very grateful to be able to use this method because there are so many benefits of fermentation. I could go on and on about it!”
How Fermented Ingredients Are Introduced Into Answers’ Raw Diets
Next, I asked Roxanne to explain how fermentation is introduced into the raw diets her company produces.
“The fermented ingredients become part of our formulation,” explains Roxanne. “Like many other manufacturers, we start with fresh USDA, often organic meats. I do want to point out one very important thing about using fermentation. It's very important that you start with very high quality, plain meats.
The meat from factory farms and confined-animal feeding operations comes with a heavy load of contamination, and so the food fermentation technique isn't going to be as successful. You want to start with meat that contains balanced microflora.
That means using good quality meat, pasture-raised chickens, and grass-fed beef. It really starts in the soil — healthy soil leads to healthy forage leads to healthy livestock, and so on. Then what we do at the midpoint of the manufacturing process is add fermented ingredients such as raw goat’s milk whey, which is teeming with beneficial lactic acid bacteria.
That becomes an ingredient in the food. We also add fermented cod livers, also teeming with tons of beneficial bacteria. In some of our formulas, we use fermented, decaffeinated green tea, or kombucha, which a lot of people have heard of. It has become a very popular fermented beverage that many humans drink and is very beneficial for our pets as well.
What we’re doing is inoculating the food and favoring that beneficial bacteria, because fermentation is generally a competition. We don't want to wipe out all bacteria because it can have very negative consequences. If we destroy all the bacteria with processing techniques like pasteurization, and we don't re-inoculate, then obviously that's detrimental to the balanced food micro-ecosystem we want to create. So we inoculate our formulations at cool temperatures.
We use mesophilic-type cultures. What mesophilic means is just low temperature fermentation. They'll ferment down at 50 degrees, so even at refrigeration temperatures, you're using cultures that can still be active down at those lower temperatures, and so we use those types of cultures, a broad spectrum of cultures.
The nice thing about fermentation is that lactic acid bacteria also produce an antimicrobial agent called bacteriocin, which is almost like an antibiotic that is detrimental to bad bacteria, like listeria and E. coli and salmonella. There's a lot of research on this.
In fact, around 1988, the FDA actually approved an extracted bacteriocin. They named it nisin, and it was used in the food industry for many, many years, very effectively. The products the lactics make have been used in the food industry for a long time, and fermentation as well. They don’t get enough credit for how effective they are.
Again, we’re feeding carnivores who really need the pre-digestion benefit in their food. That benefit comes from fermentation — all the proteolysis going on. It's breaking down protein, it's releasing digestive enzymes, it's concentrating nutrients such as B vitamins, and it’s supplying vitamin K2.
We know that carnivores have a short transit system and need those digestive enzymes and those concentrated nutrients to be able to assimilate their food quickly. Fermentation was the perfect fit, in my mind, to make a safe, commercial raw food that also offers all those additional benefits to the carnivore as well.”
How Well Does Fermentation Work to Control Foodborne Bacteria?
My next question for Roxanne was, “So how do you know fermentation works to control pathogens in the food? How do you insure it’s working?
“We do challenge studies on our foods,” she replied. “We can take a known number of pathogenic bacteria, for instance, let's say salmonella, and put it into the food at a known concentration, and then we can follow it over time and see. Has it grown? Has it grown to infectious levels? We've done many of these challenge studies.
Chicken is always one of the toughest because it tends to harbor salmonella, and it's amazing how fermentation just shuts that pathogen down. It just can't compete with the beneficial bacteria we’ve inoculated the food with.
Zero tolerance, meaning no pathogens in a raw food diet, is a very unrealistic requirement. To clarify, it’s not that I’m advocating for a high-pathogenic load in raw foods, because it can make people sick, and we understand that. But to have zero is very unrealistic.
This is well known on the USDA side of things because they have some tolerance level for even very high-quality type meats. It's just bad science in my opinion to impose zero tolerance. The testing methods they use are so sensitive they can pick up as little as one viable cell. If you do the research, you really have to look at what level makes people sick.
We know dog levels can be extremely high. I think you would agree with that, but let's just look at humans. I mean, they've done a lot of studies where they've shown that you have to be up over the millions and billions CFU per gram, which is a big portion to be able to get to those infectious levels.
In fermentation, they may be present, you may be able to detect a cell of salmonella or a cell of another opportunistic pathogen, but what I love about it is that does not mean that it's a public health hazard or is going to make somebody sick.
Some people fear that it's just too risky to serve pets fresh food. If my dog eats raw food and licks the baby, that could cross-contaminate. With fermented food, the dog is also eating all that beneficial bacteria, and that's what's going to be transferred to your family and to the rest of the household.”
Fermentation: A Brilliant Answer for Answers!
I absolutely agree that zero tolerance is not only an unrealistic goal, but could potentially be a way to put a lot of pet food companies out of business, including and perhaps especially those that make kibble. Kibble can be loaded with contaminants, including mycotoxins that can kill dogs and cats.
The zero tolerance policy as it pertains to pet food is frustrating because dogs and cats can handle an average amount of bacteria very well — they’re designed for it, in fact. The zero tolerance policy is to remove risk to humans. Fortunately, there are a number of amazingly innovative pet food companies like Answers that are coming up with their own means of controlling pathogenic bacteria without using extreme measures that totally obliterate all the healthy, positive bacteria.
Roxanne has forged her own path for her family’s company, and isn’t letting the frustrations of the pet food industry weigh her down. She’s figured out a beautiful workaround to controlling foodborne pathogens without damaging or harming the raw ingredients in her diets or the nutrition they provide. I think it's brilliant and I very much appreciate Roxanne discussing fermentation with us today.