Finding Dr. Justin Shmalberg.
Brett O'Farrell, KatKin Co-Founder
To reinvent cat food, we needed a nutrition expert to help us formulate a fresh, species-appropriate food for cats as obligate carnivores. We also wanted to solve the issue of overfeeding, finding the traditional pet food labels we were accustomed to confusing and not fully transparent.
We searched extensively in the UK and then in Europe for someone to work with. We couldn’t find an expert that had the necessary technical nutritional qualifications and first-hand experience formulating a fresh cooked pet food.
I turned to the US. My first outreach was to Dr Justin Shmalberg, given his profile. To be honest, I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was – and UK cats – to get that first call with him on 10 March 2019. It was the most energising call I’d had in weeks. Looking back, it was a Sunday, something that doesn’t surprise me now knowing Justin’s workload and commitment. On the call Justin had energy, clear views and feedback, and he didn’t make us feel crazy for wanting to do this. Justin was passionate about fresh diets for cats, and had been feeding his cats cooked fresh diets since they were kittens. He shared our view that cats have been left behind, particularly in the UK and Europe.
After struggling to find someone for so long who truly bought into our mission, that had the right expertise and experience, it hit home that having even the glimpse of an opportunity to work with Justin was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With Justin, it might be possible to change cat food in Europe, starting in the UK. The day after speaking I sent Justin an email asking to meet and two days later, I jumped on a flight to Gainesville, Florida.
Meeting Dr Justin Shmalberg
In Gainesville, Justin directs the largest integrative veterinary medicine program at a university in the United States. Justin had clinics all week so we met and had an opportunity to see the vet school and clinics. Afterwards, at an unassuming Cuban restaurant, we discussed more of our plans over lunch. Our overall impression of Justin was that he was smart, incredibly down-to-earth and easy going for someone with a formidable string of qualifications and experience. Being one of less than 100 Board-certified vet nutritionists in a country of 330 million people, Justin is widely regarded as a world-leading expert in small animal nutrition. He was integral to launching commercial fresh foods in the United States and is the chief nutrition officer for the most innovative company. He can also pull off a bow tie.
Developing the KatKin Recipes
We started working with Justin in April 2019, to design and formulate 7 single-source protein recipes, one for each day of the week, made specifically for cats as obligate carnivores. We decided upfront, in line with all our values, we would only use the best possible, human-grade quality ingredients and we would offer our meals to cats properly portioned to help them live happier, healthier and longer lives. One immediate challenge was catering for fussy eaters, as cats have a bad rep, so we also ran taste testing trials and delivered our recipes to cats’ homes, to ensure we were making recipes cats would love. With a high variety recipe offering, we quickly realised we were empowering cats to choose their favourites and we could then ensure they only got their favourites going forward, after giving us this feedback – through their parents of course!
It took eight months to develop 7 delicious, fresh, gently cooked recipes for cats. This required several rounds of formulations, test production runs in a ghost kitchen in London, expensive and extensive lab testing, and the (cat) customer feeding trials we ran in London to make sure cats love us!
Cat food is hard!
It turns out cat food is incredibly difficult – and today I reckon Justin is one in 7.5 billion! We, UK cats and soon those in Europe, are incredibly lucky Justin also agreed to join the KatKin family as our Chief Veterinary Officer.
Together we’re going to change the way we feed our cats.