Facts of the Job
Job Title: Pet food tester or pet food technologist
Average Pay: £20,000 – £50,000
Qualification/Experience Needed: Experience in food preparation, any experience indicative of a good palette, or a degree in nutrition/food science
Do you have a highly sensitive palette, able to detect even the most subtle and nuanced flavours and ingredients? Have you also often been jealous of your dog at meal times? Sounds to me like pet food tester could well be right up your street.
Just as with almost every other food production industry, a tester/taster is a necessary part of the production of pet food. In general, this is a trait of the more luxury and up-market brands, brands who want to be certain that they are meeting the high expectations and standards of their customers. So, as pets cannot (unfortunately) communicate their level of satisfaction with the food they’re eating, or even suggest adding a bit more salt perhaps, humans must try their darnedest to do this for them.
Now, it’s fairly clear that humans can’t fully speak for their furry counterparts in culinary matters, but a whole lot of research and experience means that a seasoned tester has a pretty good idea of what flavours and combinations will work and which won’t. These differences are especially important when it comes to things like the smell of the food for example, something which animals experience on a very different level to humans. Here it’s really important to make sure that Elsa the miniature poodle has something extra enticing to smell the second that the tin is opened.
So your job would be to act as a conduit between animal and human, an ambassador, if you will, to help strengthen the relationship between us and our small, furry allies in the war for tastier mealtimes.
Responsibilities and Duties
The task of actually testing the pet food is covered by a range of different jobs. Generally, food testers range from the lowly quality assurance assistant, regularly tasting the entire range of food to check for consistency and make general flavour notes, all the way to the experienced technical director, who is also responsible for creating new recipes as well as giving regulatory and technical advice to the business.
Food testers have to repeatedly taste the food over and over again, methodically taking notes and writing reports throughout, all in a controlled lab environment. This part of the job can become incredibly repetitive and this is most of what you start off doing as a quality assurance assistant. Food will be checked for around 40 different taste reference points such as meatiness, woodiness and smokiness. Reference points for smell, appearance and texture are also used.
All this dog food tasting is only tasting though, it’s spat back out when your done with it, so no need to worry about having your diet being completely ruined by all the pet food you’re eating (though some testers have noted that, occasionally, premium pet food is actually better tasting than a lot of ‘human’ food).
The testers are also looking at how they can continue to improve the nutritional content of the food to help keep your pets strong and healthy, sporting a thick coat and a shiny nose. Moving higher up the chain, the food technicians and directors look into more efficient production methods and innovations in nutrition delivery to help further improve the product. Even elements of the packaging fall under the remit of the more senior food testing roles.
Should you Become a Pet Food Tester?
Other than being comfortable shoving pet food into your mouth for most of the day, there are a number of other qualities you should make sure you possess before deciding to enter the pet food testing profession.
Most obviously is a good palette. It may ‘just be dog food’, but you’re still expected to discern subtle and complex flavours and ingredients. One food tester explained how, as part of the hiring process, you’re asked to describe different products and note the variations between them, using the sort of lexicon that is more reminiscent of wine connoisseurs discussing a fine Merlot, rather than people eating dog food in a lab. Beyond this sort of competency test, a history of experience in food preparation or other tasting jobs would be a strong indicator of a good palette.
“It has the taste and aroma of chicken and some of what you call the red flavours – things like heart and liver; gutsy, savoury notes. Then you get a mealy, green pea, pulse aroma and occasionally a sweeter note from the carrot.” – Simon Allison, M&S Pet Food Taster
With all the note-taking and report writing you’ll be doing, being generally analytical and methodical in your approach to work will be key. A solid grasp of the English language will also help you to express the taste of the food in a meaningful and clear way.
If you have a degree in nutrition or food science, then entering the industry as a food technologist could be the better option for you. An exceptional palette is not as strong a requirement when you have a detailed understanding of all the science that goes into the food actually being made and how that affects little Fido’s body. This route is especially appealing at the moment as there’s quite a demand for food technologists right now in the UK according to the Food and Drink Federation. And with the potential pay anywhere from £20,000 to £50,000, prospects are fairly high.
A lot of the entry-level tester jobs are short term or part-time contracts, starting when companies are looking to develop a new product. Getting into this could be a great way for students or anyone with free time looking for some work to earn a bit of extra money. Also, once you’ve done it once you’ll be much more likely to get more work when you apply in the future.
If this all sounds absolutely brilliant to you besides the whole eating pet food thing, then you probably don’t have too much to worry about. Most the companies offering these positions tend only to deal with top-of-the-line, premium pet food. This means that it’s totally fit for human consumption and often rather tasty. Honest Kitchen owner, Lucy Postins, personally tastes all the pet food her company produces herself, which is probably why their food contains all free range chicken and ranch-raised beef, blended with a wide variety of organic greens.
What starts out sounding like a fairly weird job turns out to be not all that different from any testing role in the food industry. If you’re at university right now studying food or nutrition without a clue what you’re going to do at the end of it all, why not try some pet food, you might like it.