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NIR technologies in petfood production: Measuring the moisture, fat & protein levels of incoming ingredients

With an output that includes a wide range of pet food types – dry kibbles, wet food, fresh varieties, treats made of bone and meat, as well as others – petfood production facilities are often managing many different recipes and products per feed mill, with some producing over 150 distinct products.

In addition to the number of varieties, more natural ingredients are being sought, as well as alternative and sustainable ingredients, such as vegetables like pumpkin or even insect protein. Incoming ingredients, extrusion and processing, and final product inspection are key points along the petfood production line where accurate and timely analytical data can help control the process, ensure quality, reduce waste, and improve yield.

Incoming ingredients
Petfood producers are facing supply chain disruptions and rising costs, which may result in working with new suppliers or ingredients from different regions. The new variety of incoming ingredients can have significant variations in nutritional quality from batch to batch.

Measuring the moisture, fat, and protein levels of incoming ingredients gives food producers a good indication about the quality right from the start. When raw materials come in from a supplier, natural and other variations in the product can result in protein levels ranging from as much as 33 to 45 percent.

As a result, petfood producers often require certain protein levels from suppliers or blend a number of batches to reach their targeted protein. Measuring protein and other parameters is necessary to make sure your supplier is meeting your expectations or that your blends are meeting specifications, especially since protein content is a common payment criterion.

Fortunately, obtaining data on protein and other quality parameters is quick and easy with near-infrared (NIR) technology. Laboratory or at-line instruments, such as the Unity SpectraStar™ XT Series from KPM Analytics, offer accurate and reliable measurements of moisture, protein, and fat in less than a minute.

Accurate and timely compositional analysis provide the inputs required to consistently formulate various recipes in the most cost-effective manner.


At-line quality analysis for process control
After analysing ingredients, petfood operators also have to monitor and control the mixing stage, measure moisture levels in extruders and dryers, and optimise sprays to ensure corrective action can be taken quickly if problems arise.

Once a manufacturer has developed their process, it may operate consistently for a period of time, but machinery and processes are not perfect and can change in performance.

Batches can drift outside targeted specification ranges and it’s important to monitor quality along the production line and react quickly to make adjustments if needed. Routine at-line analysis with frequent sampling provides real-time data production managers need for responsive process control.

NIR (Near infra-red) instruments are always calibrated for their application, and most calibrations are developed from thousands of samples across many years and geographies to deliver accurate and reliable results.

Entire calibration libraries exist today spanning hundreds of different product types, including petfood. Users can also create custom NIR calibrations for their instruments to measure specific quality properties of unique product formulations.

Once a user has their calibration in place, the same NIR instrument that is used to measure incoming ingredients for moisture, protein, fat, and other parameters, can also be used next to the production line to monitor quality before packaging.

Operators can simply measure grab samples from the production line with the NIR instrument, and in less than a minute, they can quickly take corrective action if problems arise. This prevents wasted product and re-work costs.

NIR instruments can also be used at other stages in the process, such as for accurately measuring moisture at the drying stage, and providing data to optimise processes, like fat spraying on pellets. Ingredient sprays are costly for petfood operations, and many companies have tightened their tolerance levels of certain parameters to save costs and keep quality at a high level.

Therefore, NIR instruments can become essential quality control instruments to monitor moisture levels, or determine whether a sprayer is applying product correctly, helping ensure quality at every step of the way.

Rapid analytical results
There are many areas in a petfood mill where rapid analytical results can lead to increased efficiency and large cost savings, and perhaps the easiest to quantify is the moisture levels in the finished product. Typical moisture calibrations have an error of less than 0.5%.

These highly accurate results combined with increased testing and immediate results from NIR analysis often times allows operators to run 1% closer to the labelled moisture levels, increasing yield and reducing raw feed costs.

The example in Table 1 demonstrates the typical savings for a small– medium sized pet producing 200,000 pounds of petfood per day. At $0.30 per pound (0.45 kg), producing feed 1% closer to the moisture target results in $150,000 of additional revenue, paying for a typical NIR in less than six month and thereafter, increasing running profit levels.

If more constituents are controlled, the payback time is even shorter. Beyond compositional analysis of petfood products, technologies also exist to help petfood companies develop stronger standards for the visual appearance of their petfoods and treats.

For instance, the TheiaVu™ compact vision inspection system from KPM Analytics, is a benchtop analysis instrument that utilises high-resolution cameras and advanced analysis software to benchmark products for consistent size, shape, colour, texture, and other visual characteristics that appeal to pet owners.

Vision inspection technologies are especially useful for ensuring new product formulations (grain-free varieties, for instance) will maintain a final product appearance consistent with brand standards.

Not all kinds of laboratory instruments can provide such a quick return on investment the way NIR and vision inspection technologies can. These tools, which require little training or experience to operate, immediately help quality assurance and R&D personnel make data-driven decisions that can mediate costs, improve product consistency, and give your brand a competitive edge.

Note from the editor:
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Article contributed by Casey Thomson, Senior Application Engineer, KPM Analytics, USA.



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