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Earlier in March we had the opportunity to visit the Science Diet Pet Nutrician Center in Topeka Kansas. They also have their canning facility in Topeka so we were able to get a tour of that plant. We all came back from this trip with a big Wow. Science Diet has it roots as a food for dogs that had health problems. Way back when there were no prepared dog foods. People fed their dogs scraps either from their own tables or bought meat byproducts from their butcher to feed their dogs. This isn't always the best thing for your dog. In fact it can cause some problems. The founder of Science Diet found some recipes that would keep dogs with health problems healthier. In fact they still have a very large presence in marketing their products through veterinarians for sick dogs. However a long time ago they also started using what they knew to make a dog food for healthy dogs. This is where Science Diet came from.

We had a long tour of their Pet Nutrition Center where they do research on dogs and cats to keep their foods better for your pet than any other food. We're all dog lovers and cat owners and we all came away as impressed as we could be for the animals they are researching. We'd love it if we could board our dogs in such a facility when we were traveling. What really impresses you is how clean it all is. Now this is a research facility but you're still dealing with animals. You sure didn't see much of any animal waste (although that is one of the things they study.) They have almost 500 beagles on hand in their facility. They all live in their own little colonies where they have a play yard and their own semi-private sleeping area. (When they're bedded down they can sleep by themself or with their buddy according to their wishes.) The researchers told us that if a procedure done to a person would require a pain killer of some kind they just plain won't do it to one of their animals. The cats lived in the perfect little cat worlds where they had a few friends in there with them. They could sit up on a platform or lie on the floor. They can go out to the porch anytime they want.

What really impressed was that when the animals are too old to be research subjects they aren't put down. They're retired for the rest of the days, living in a little cat paradise. They also get a lot of human interaction. In fact one shift pretty much spends all of their time petting the animals. One of the things they study is how to make the food more palatable (or tasty). The focus of this comes from their research for sick animals. If an animal is not feeling right they don't have an appetite. If they don't eat they get sicker. So it certainly is a benefit to have the food yummier. We have some personal experience with that as we are putting one of our dogs on the light product to reduce his weight. We are getting the other dogs eating that product rather than the regular science diet. We got to meet with a couple of the researchers. One of them shared his research with us concerning their puppy formulations. They have done studies that prove that their puppy food actually enhances brain development over other top brands because of some key ingredients they put in. They also have increased the puppies mobility which they have proved with tests. We met with their nutritionist which was very interesting. All of the people at Science Diet were passionate over their product but their nutritionist really stuck out. He was talking about why they use some of the ingredients that they do. What they do is to find an ideal nutrition level for animals and then come up with a formula to reach that. This was very interesting because some of the things we thought we knew didn't turn out to be so.

They use corn in most of their products because it helps them reach the ultimate nutrition level. Some people think corn is just a filler, but when it's milled and cooked it's very digestible for a dog. They expect it to be over 90% digested and have the tests to show that they reach that. Another ingredient they use is "chicken by-product." This is a legal definition that they have to use which they think is unfair. They contract with a chicken processor to get exactly what they want. This generally is the internal organs of the animals, not what should be waste. They then process the chicken and cook it. If they don't use chicken and used beef instead they have the problem of the calcium level of their foods being twice as high as it should be. This can cause a lot of problem for animals. One thing that really got this guy was the term "holistic" when it comes to dog food. This expert gave a sigh and said that he just didn't have any idea what that term meant. We also met with Science Diet's label expert. This is far more complicated than we expected.

One thing we learned about was weight control products. The term "light" or "lite" is a legal definition related to the number of calories per a volume of the dog food. A lot of the foods didn't meet this standard so they have relabeled their product "weight control." This term is pretty much without meaning. We saw that some foods so labeled were more fattening than a normal dog food. Buyer beware. Science Diet is one of the few providers of a true "light" product. Since this trip we put one of our dogs on the light product. The factory tour was very impressive. On of our party worked for an unnamed human food company. We were told by him that the Science Diet canning plant was cleaner than the plant where he previously worked. Wow. We also had briefings on the marketing plans for Science Diet for the rest of the year and they shared a lot of their marketing research with us.

We've been seeing terrific growth with the brand over the last several years and this information should help us continue that growth through 2009. We also discussed their product training programs to help us educate the Home of Economy Team who deal with the customers all the time. One thing I did find out from their national sales manager is that Home of Economy's growth with Science Diet, percentage wise, is fantastic. All in all this was a terrific trip that made us all the more excited to keep growing the Science Diet Brand.