“It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Patricia Patterson remarks thoughtfully. She remembers its porous surface – it resembled lava rock. She inserted a chunk into her mouth, moved it around for a few seconds. Spit and repeat. Spit and repeat.
At the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University, Patterson, a former restaurateur, analyzes a slew of products for flavor, texture, and color – fragrances, fruit, gelato, coffee, air fresheners, and fabrics. But dog food is the product that makes people raise eyebrows and cock heads.
“I admit, there’s a certain stigmatism to eating dog food,” Patterson said. “But I don’t eat it. I taste it and analyze it.” In fact, its distinct flavor is harder to identify than many might imagine.
Graduated from: Business school in Salina, Kansas
Based in: Manhattan, Kansas
Years in the business: 12
Previous jobs: I started out as a secretary, but I got bored sitting behind a desk. I wanted something more people-oriented, so I went into the bar and restaurant business. I did that for a good many years, but I got burned out.
You left one food job for a very different food job. I basically retired from my restaurant job, and I was looking for something part-time. I saw this newspaper ad for the job at Kansas State University, which appealed to me because it said something like, “If you like to work with food, people, and products.”
No mention of dog food. No.
Tell me about your first day on the job. Well, before you’re accepted and trained, you have to pass a test. You have to describe and differentiate between different products. Take cinnamon, for example. They want you to say brown, sweet, woody. But an individual who hasn’t been trained doesn’t think about those things. They might just say that it smells good.
So developing a lexicon filled with rich adjectives is part of the training. Yes. We’re always coming up with descriptive terms and definitions. It comes with time and experience.
Preparation and special tactics: We don’t prepare the products, so we don’t need gloves or hairnets. But we wear white lab coats [when testing], and stay away from perfume or anything scented. No flavored lipstick, no hand lotion or hairspray, no detergent. We work in a clean conference room, with a table, chairs, blackboard, and sink to wash your hands.
How did you react the first time that dog food appeared on the table in front of you? I was like, yuck, nasty! Animal food was a totally new area we hadn’t approached before.
Have you ever dined at a restaurant and thought, Wow, this kind of tastes like dog food? Yes. Sometimes, you’d like to shut it off, but you can’t.
Your objective in taste testing: We’re not told specifically what we’re looking for; others extract the information they need. We just examine the aroma, flavor, and texture. We determine attributes using references.
Do you mean points of reference? Yes. We have about 40 references for dog food, for attributes ranging from smokiness to mustiness to fishiness. We have references for its appearance, too: color, shape, size, and surface texture.
Your beef with dog food: We had one that tasted like sponge rubber. But we also had one that was very, very good. I’m sorry, but it was. It was meaty and had vegetables.
Did you swallow it? No – you don’t want to mix the flavors. You leave it in your mouth for a certain amount of time, maybe moving it around, maybe chewing it. Then you expectorate it.
Skills required for the job: Patience. A testing can take one day, or it can take weeks, months, or years. It depends on the project. You also need to be unbiased; it doesn’t matter whether or not you like the product.
Best part of your job: Seeing so many different products. I also like the international travel. I’ve been to Germany to work on cheese; Thailand to work on soy sauce and a variety of miniature fruits; and Italy to work on gelato.
Most challenging part of your job: Coming up with new terms and attributes. But it’s a group effort; that’s why we have panels of sensory analysts.
What would people be surprised to learn about your job? It’s not an eating job. We taste, over and over and over. It’s very repetitive.
You mentioned that you own a dog yourself. He must benefit from your sophisticated palette. He’s spoiled rotten. I cook for him a lot – chicken, beef, potatoes, rice, carrots, and pork. But if I’m traveling, he does get dried dog food.
Recently, the radio show This American Life investigated a story about meat plants selling pig intestines as fake calamari. It suggested that consumers couldn’t differentiate between the two. Do you think the same goes for dog food and certain “human foods,” like chopped liver? I have to say, some of the dog food we had was better than people food.
Salary: $10 to $16 per hour.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
There’s a certain satisfaction in improving and developing products that eventually end up on shelves. It’s very rewarding. It’s also interesting to be exposed to products that consumers may never see – the things that don’t make it to the shelves.
Like Patricia Patterson, many No Joe Schmos started out in more ordinary professions. Meet the tech entrepreneur turned pooper scooper and the real estate agent turned hot air ballon pilot. Then, check out more of the cutest dog GIFs of all time.