We Tried it: Tracing a Natural, Sustainable Pet Food to Its Source Out in Alaska's Bering Sea
Animal lovers want what is best for their pet’s well-being and happiness. Recently, this devotion to our furry friends has meant increased focus on what we are feeding our animals and how that food is made.
Purina and their team of veterinarians, food scientists and nutritionists, many being pet parents themselves, understand this protective urge and abide by the belief that every ingredient has a purpose. To support this statement, the pet food company provides a breakdown of everything that goes into their pet food.
Purina Beyond takes this devotion to high-quality ingredients even farther. Started in 2014, Beyond is a line of natural dog and cat foods that is composed of ingredients that are meant to be recognizable and confidence-inducing to the consumer, proteins like Alaskan Cod, Pacific Tuna and Icelandic Arctic Char, all of which are back by Beyond’s 100% Traceability Guarantee. Every package of Beyond pet food from Purina clearly lists all of ingredients, and the country of origin for each of those ingredients can be found on Purina’s website.
In an addition to being transparent about its sources, Beyond also promises that it is corn, wheat and soy free, contains no added colors, flavors or preservatives and has real meat, poultry or fish as the number one ingredient.
This meat, poultry and fish come from sources that have been carefully vetted, often through relationships that takes months to establish, and go through audits every 1 to 3 years once approved.
“Financial audits, responsible sourcing audits, test to make sure materials meet Purina’s specs,” Andy Furmanek, a category procurement buyer at Purina, listed to PEOPLE as a few of the things their suppliers can expect on fairly regular basis.
Plus, the product has to taste good — pass “palatability testing” — to pets adds Furmanek, who helped bring Alaskan Leader Seafood on as a supplier after determining the company was a “quality, reputable, sustainable” source for cod.
Beyond’s Alaskan Cod Recipe cat and dog food, newcomers to the line, can be traced back the middle of the Bering Sea. The food’s number one ingredient, Alaskan cod, is sustainably-caught by the boats of Alaskan Leader Seafood, a Seattle-based seafood company that operates a fleet of fishing vessels in Alaska’s vast Bering Sea.
Of course, it is easy enough to believe all this information at face value, but PEOPLE decided to go even deeper, right to the source, to see how sustainable Beyond really is.
My journey started in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a small town home to big fishing industries located on Amaknak Island in Unalaska, Alaska. Here, I boarded the Northern Leader, Alaskan Leader Seafood’s largest and newest fishing vessel. The boat’s home port is Kodiak, Alaska, but Captain Shaun Andrews and his crew were kind enough to take a trip south to pick us up.
The 184-foot vessel is often home to 30 fishermen at a time who rotate duties around the boat for fishing trips that can last anywhere from a few weeks to over 60 days. It sounds like the perfect breeding ground for cabin fever and petty drama, but all of the fisherman — who travel from all across the country to work these trips out on the same wild waters as seen on Deadliest Catch — seem to have found a passion-driven harmony that is only to interrupted when it comes time to decide what kind of music should play over the Northern Leader’s sound system.
It’s a passion that find sits source in Captain Andrews, who has been running fishing vessels since he was 21 years old. A long time captain for Alaskan Leader Seafoods, Andrews was asked by the company to help design the Northern Leader when it came time to create Alaskan Leader’s new boat.
The end result was a bright blue beauty dedicated to combing efficient-fishing of high quality Alaskan cod with a low environmental impact. The Northern Leader has a 100 percent electrically operated propulsion system and 100 percent LED lighting, allowing it to significantly cut down on energy expenditures.
It is also a longline fishing vessel, this means the fish are by a long line stringed with individual hooks that is dropped across the Bering sea in yards. While more time consuming than dredging, this method protects the Bering’s sea bed, helps prevent the by-catch and allows the boat to see everything that is coming on board. The Northern Leader throws all the fish, alive, that they don’t need back into the Bering Sea.
For Captain Andrews this is the only way to fish.
“I’ve been every fisher there is. I looked at the long run, it’s the most environmentally safe way to catch fish,” he said of longline. “You don’t dredge up the bottom. Doing this makes you feel a lot better.”
Andrews has staffed the Northern Leader with people who agree with him, fellow fisherman who love their job and the fish that make it possible. No one aboard Alaskan Leader’s crown jewel is looking to make a quick buck at the expense of the Bering Sea.
It’s an attitude and a practice that attracted Purina enough that the company created Beyond’s Alaskan Cod Recipe to be able to highlight the product. It also allowed for Beyond’s Alaskan Cod Recipe to receive an MSC Certification.
“The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a non-profit organization that sets a science-based standard for sustainable fishing. The MSC standard assesses wild-capture fisheries on three principles: sustainable fish stocks (there are enough fish left in the ocean), minimizing environmental impact and effective fisheries management. In 2018, Purina Beyond successfully completed the Marine Stewardship Council’s Chain of Custody Group Certification, a first within the Purina branded product portfolio,” Sara Schaecher, lead communications specialist at Purina, told PEOPLE.
Purina’s work to ensure they are providing sustainable seafood does not stop with this certification. According to Furmanek, the pet food company works with Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a non-profit out of Boston, to keep tabs on all the fisheries that provide product.
“I submit data to SFP, assign risk to the fish we are bringing in based on country of origin, species, how it’s caught, the vessels that caught it, and SFP give us back a score for that fishery, and if one is high risk we try to improve that fishery or prepare to phase out that ingredient or look at a different source,” he said, adding that Purina always looks to “improve circumstances” and fisheries first, instead of just cutting ties.
Along with bringing more business to Alaskan Leader Seafood, which provides wild-caught Alaskan cod products to outlets across the country, Beyond also helped the seafood company get closer to their goal to use as much of what they catch as possible. Currently, when a cod is caught on the Northern Leader and processed on the fishing vessel, over 95% of the fish is processed and used.
Aboard the boat you can watch it all happen, and I did. The process starts with the longline being baited and draped out in tight squiggle across the waters of the Bering Sea. After all the line is out, the North Leader returns to the start of the line and begins drawing it back in. There are two fishermen at the ready at the side of the boat to draw in each fish off the line, removing any by-catch and throwing it back into the ocean as it comes in. What is taken onto the boat is then sent on a conveyor belt to the ship’s processing plant. All the fish are sorted again, ensuring that any by-catch makes it back into the water alive.
Each cod brought on board in weighed by a computer, which sends those numbers to the government to ensure that the Northern Leader and every other fishing vessel stay within their allotted quota for the year. From there, through an assembly line of clean machinery, each cod is processed, heads and guts included, in a whirlwind of activity that takes less than an hour and ends with processed fish being frozen for safe transport.
“We wanted to build a boat where we could pack all our product and nothing would have to go over the side. That’s what we did,” Andrews said. “We started working towards that, finding markets for every part of the fish. Now, we have 98% of everything is packed on board. That’s as environmentally-friendly as you can get.”
While advertising and product promises can seem too good to be true, the claims made by Beyond regarding their Alaskan Cod Recipe are all real. From head to tail, I watched it happen, surrounded by Alaska’s splendor, and met the people who are making it possible.