Vitamins still largely dominate the nutritional ingredients market for animal feed. About 70 percent of all vitamins made go to that market, according to Dan Murray, vice president of business development at Xsto Solutions, a Morristown, N.J.-based company that works with manufacturers to market nutritional ingredients to functional food and dietary supplement markets across North America. "There's a very strong demand and there's a strong belief that vitamins are helping animals grow better, healthier and stronger."
But companies raising livestock—mainly beef, poultry and pork—are increasingly diversifying their nutritional programs. Some of that is driven by consumer demands that their meats be free of antibiotics as a growth promoter. There's increased interest in using natural ingredients as health additives, such as probiotics and essential oils from plants.
Probiotics in animal feed have been around since the 1970s, and by the 1990s were considered as a serious alternative to antibiotics as a growth promoter. Some essential oils are also useful as intestinal microflora modulators, according to Marc de Beer, regional marketing manager for DSM in North America.
"Due to concerns over the use of antibiotics, [essential oils have] generated a strong interest in the animal feed industry," de Beer said. "The antibacterial effects of essential oil compounds such as carvacrol, thymol and eugenol are well documented, which makes products with a consistent composition of these compounds viable alternatives to antibiotics."
Antibiotics-free animal nutrition
Helping producers implement an antibiotics-free regimen is a core focus for Alltech, an animal nutrition technology company with $500 million annual sales.
"The use of antibiotics [to promote growth] is clearly concerning to the medical community, concerned already with antibiotic resistance," says Aidan Connolly, vice president of corporate accounts at Alltech. The company's antibiotic-free programs "allow producers to keep animals healthy and productive while preserving the effectiveness of those same antibiotics for when the animal is truly sick.... We have been able to prove that we can produce without sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics without increasing cost."
For example, sugar from yeast has shown great promise for dairy calves, according to information from Alltech, which says scientific trials have shown a reduction in the incidence of respiratory disease, improved health status due to improved immune system functioning and a reduction in scouring.
Alltech also promotes its selenium-based product Sel-Plex across the various livestock feed markets. Selenium has been added to feeds for more than 50 years. In peer-reviewed journals, selenium has shown beneficial effects on health, fertility, immunity and recovery from disease in pigs, poultry, dairy, beef, fish, pets and horses, he says.
Biotin, a water-soluble B-vitamin complex, is another long-used feed additive whose efficacy for addressing hoof health came with unanticipated benefits, according to Murray, a veteran of the animal agriculture and nutrition industries. "Higher levels of biotin improves hoof health. It also increases milk production," he says.
Lack of guidance hurts innovation
These are some of the proven and well-established animal feed additives. What about the future? What about ingredient innovation?
It's partly being held back by the failure of the government to take the lead, according to George Burdock, Ph.D, president of Burdock Group, a food safety and regulatory compliance consulting firm. Burdock wrote more than a year ago in Functional Ingredients that he expected the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) to initiate a "game-changing" process for acceptance of generally recognized as safe (GRAS) notifications for animal-feed ingredients.
The jury is still out, according to Burdock, but the winds are blowing onerous. Last December, FDA reopened the comment period for the original GRAS notification program—the first comment period opened in 1997, but no final regulation was ever issued—with comments due at the end of March. But the FDA has not responded.
"The way it stands now, industry sees CVM as being unreasonable in their demands, which will lead to a stifling of innovation in the industry—therefore, raising the price of food for the consumer. At its worst, [it] will only create a 'black market' for unapproved ingredients," Burdock says. "On the other hand, CVM sees its role as protecting the public regardless of the cost burden on industry and, while in a perfect world this might be the ideal solution, the bottom line is that it is impractical to be so didactic and inflexible."
Organic aquaculture standards
Lack of U.S. government guidance has also given pause to Cyanotech to push into the organic market with its astaxanthin and spirulina products, according to Valerie Harmon, Cyanotech's cultivation director. Make that re-enter the market, because the company used to produce organic spirulina for the aquaculture market but pulled out when USDA announced it would create rules for U.S. companies. That was about six years ago, Harmon says.
"There's still no [organic aquaculture] standards for the United States," she says, adding that most aquaculture organic farmers have exited the market, playing the waiting game. "It's really become a quandary for the businesses. Do we really want to try and get certified to European standards, or are we going to still wait? The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that doesn't have organic aquaculture standards."
Despite the uncertainties, Cyanotech did re-commit to the animal feed market in January with its natural astaxanthin product after a three-year hiatus when all production focused on the human market. Increased capacity allowed the company to devote excess supply to the animal feed.
Good nutrition = good eats
Alltech's Connolly notes that while the government may be fence-sitting when it comes to GRAS or organic standards, there is obviously pressure on the industry to find scientifically sound products that increase food production and protect profits balanced against public expectations of animal welfare, human and animal health and the desire to eat healthily.
"We believe that nutrigenomics is the science that holds the key to these issues," says Connolly, referring to the science that studies the effects of foods and food constituents on gene expression. Alltech invested $20 million in 2008 to its Centre for Animal Nutrigenomics and Applied Animal Nutrition, a 20,000-square-foot expansion of the company's existing research facility.
"Alltech... believes that instead of focusing research on individual ingredients, we will seek to feed the gene with programs, and these programs will deliver cheaper food production with better quality characteristics," Connolly says. In the end, he argues, nutritional animal food science is about robust production without sacrificing the health of the animal or the consumer.
"Most of our customers seek most of the benefits of organic—no antibiotics, no growth hormones—at a similar cost to conventional agricultural practices."
Fish do it, dogs do it
The suggestion of a team of pink sled dogs racing across the snow-white starkness of Alaska makes Valerie Harmon momentarily laugh out loud.
Fur coat coloration for its huskies isn't why the sled dog industry is so hot for Cyanotech Corp.'s natural astaxanthin product for animals, she insists.
"It's the same reason why human athletes use our product and like it so well," says Harmon, director of cultivation at Cyanotech, a Hawaii-based company that specializes in natural products from microalgae. A carotenoid traditionally associated with perking up the pinkness in salmon in the aquaculture industry, astaxanthin boosts the body's antioxidants, allowing the animals to recover from exercise more quickly, and enhancing muscle function, according to Harmon. "They see improved performance from the sprint-racing dogs," she adds.
The success of astaxanthin in both animal diets and human health could serve as a case study of how suppliers of functional ingredients are increasingly blurring the line between markets for man and beast, with a bent toward more natural products.