A year or so ago I was aware that Royal Canin was using feathers in their pet food, to be honest at the time I thought it was an act of desperate cost saving, however it is a whole lot more clever than that!
So a little understanding of immune responses is essential here, basically the body is set up to detect and destroy evil foreign proteins(invaders). Sometimes however it goes wrong and recognises good (or normal) proteins as evil too. In food this causes Adverse Food Reactions, Atopic Dermatitis and so on. Now the immune response is also linked to the size of these proteins – the protein size is measured in Dalton’s which is the measurement for mass on an molecular scale – and the bigger the protein the bigger the response. This can be partly due to it being easier to “see” by the immune system.
The goal of Royal Canin was to produce a food with protein molecules that were less than 1kDa (1000 Daltons) in size to prevent the immune reaction. Now part of the Royal Canin philosophy is for sustainability and so they needed the protein but also a strong continuing supply of this. It took them years to find this, and in the end it was found that the proteins in feather hydrolysate were the correct size, and there is a plentiful supply. Now what this means is that the feathers are specially processed to release all the proteins (around 88%) and oligopeptides (around 12%). This is exactly the same kind of technique that is used with formula for babies that are allergic to milk.
The rest of the formula was adapted as well (72% of it is brand new) to ensure that no other ingredients were included that contained proteins. It took 4 years and 15 prototypes along with 300 palatability tests to come to the final product with a 10 year development time!
Now the production of this food is even more complex than most as its cannot contain even the smallest contamination from other proteins. To achieve this it is produced in only 2 Royal Canin factories in the world, and the production line undergoes extreme cleaning and DNA testing in each stage of the line after cleaning to ensure that it is properly clean!