A dog's breakfast
It takes an army to fill Fido's bowl
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Mar 20, 2013 06:00 am
Ever wonder who made your breakfast?
Probably not, if you’re a dog. But a whole lot of work goes into what fills Fido’s bowl.
Just ask Frank Burdzy. As president of Champion Petfoods, he oversees about 75 people in the company’s production plant in Morinville, and works with hundreds of other farmers, shippers, testers and inspectors.
“Dogs and cats deserve to be fed what they’re designed to be fed,” Burdzy says, describing his company’s philosophy.
In the old days, companies would throw whatever scrap grains were cheap into their pet foods. Today, many use duck, boar and other high-end ingredients that’s also used in human food.
“We get all our ingredients from the same suppliers that supply the grocery stores,” he says.
These pets are getting the same level of nutrition and food safety that people get, says Ed Giorgi of Edmonton’s Sunfresh Farms, who supplies Champion and other grocery stores with locally-grown produce.
“They probably eat better than I do sometimes!”
Pet food is a $21.5 billion a year industry in North America, says Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor in chief of Petfood Industry magazine.
The big trend nowadays is humanization, she says. Today’s “pet parents” treat their pets as they would their children, and they’re picky about what goes in their bowl.
“They’re looking for locally sourced, natural, even organic,” Phillips-Donaldson says.
Making those foods starts with research, Burdzy says. Producers will market lines with different protein, fat and vitamin levels for different types of pets, mixing ingredients in hopes of finding a winner.
“A lot of it, just like in human beings, is personal preference,” he says.
Champion sends its new recipes to a contractor to be field-tested by thousands of dogs, Burdzy says. Researchers watch to see which food the dogs go for first, how much and how fast they eat, and how well they digest it (by taking stool samples).
Next comes the ingredients. The Champion plant produces many lines of food, each of which can involve up to 25 ingredients, Burdzy says.
Every day Champion hauls in about 20 semi-truckloads of fresh food, including peas, lentils, beef, chicken, duck, eggs and wild boar, Burdzy says. Juggling all these shipments requires daily demand forecasts and talks with their suppliers.
Grains, vegetables and vitamins arrive in phone-booth sized bags that are loaded into silos.
Meat arrives in colour-coded vats pre-ground from the slaughterhouse and is kept at a constant 4 C. Beef, chicken, duck, lamb, eggs, fish … it’s like the contents of Noah’s Ark run through a blender.
Each vat is labelled “inedible,” Burdzy says, which technically isn’t true: this is perfectly safe and nutritious meat to eat, provided you like spleen. You might also lose your appetite when you see the pink and purple gloop that you get when you mix beef, liver, hearts and other organs together.
When the plant starts production, staffers in the meat locker pour vats of ingredients into a big aluminum hopper using a forklift. The meat is mixed and piped over to the cooking area, as are dry ingredients from storage silos.
The cooking area consists of a mass of tubes, tanks, drums and a bus-sized oven. It’s the size of a three-storey house and as loud as the inside of a V-12 engine. The whole works is highly automated and can be run by one or two people from a single computer, Burdzy says.
Dry ingredients flow into a big steel tank at the top of the cooking area, Burdzy explains, down through the meat-filled tank below it, and through a long horizontal cylinder.
“That is like a Mixmaster,” he says, and it churns the ingredients until they reach a dough-like consistency. It also cooks everything at about 95 C.
The now-cooked dough squeezes through a metal plate that has holes drilled in it. A spinning blade snips the dough as it comes through the holes, producing thousands of kibbles per minute.
Operators can open a hatch at this point to test the kibble for size, consistency, ash, fat and protein content. This often involves juggling them in your hand for a bit beforehand, Burdzy demonstrates, as the kibbles are pretty hot.
A hose sucks the kibble over to the dryer, where it spends many minutes baking in 120 C heat. Once dry, the kibble rolls through several drums that coat it with additional fats and powders for flavour.
A bucket-conveyor dumps the kibble into another big tank, which flows into an automatic bagger. Once a worker checks to see that the bag is properly sealed and labelled, it goes through a combination X-ray scanner and metal detector. If a computer detects any foreign objects in the bag (such as bits of plastic), it kicks it off the production line for inspection.
Finished bags are placed on pallets and plastic-wrapped by a robot arm. Those pallets are loaded onto trucks and taken to a warehouse in Edmonton, from which they head to stores in 60 nations.
The whole process takes about 30 minutes, Burdzy says, most of which is spent in the dryer. They end up with about 160 tonnes of pet food a day – enough to fill about 20 semi-trucks.
“It’s a lot of kilograms per hour,” Burdzy says.
The local advantage
Many of the ingredients Champion uses come from local farms such as Earl Hagman’s Hog Wild Specialties near Mayerthorpe. Each year, on a patch of swampy land, he raises about 300 head a year of wild boar, much of which goes to Champion.
“It’s tough to meet the demand they have,” Hagman said.
The best protein comes from fresh local sources, which is part of the reason Champion buys local, Burdzy says.
The other part is safety.
“The bottom line is that we are making food,” Burdzy says, “and the food we make is handled by human beings as well as the pets.”
As one salmonella outbreak can mean a huge product recall, manufacturers take many steps to prevent contamination. You can’t walk 12 paces without seeing a hand sanitizer or wash station in the Champion plant, for example, and have to wade through foot-baths full of cleaner between certain areas. The plant is also laid out to physically separate the cooking, meat, grain storage and shipping areas to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
“All of the equipment in here is sanitized every day” with steam and chemicals, Burdzy says, with a major cleanup done every weekend. All ingredients come from regularly inspected farms, and each load of material is tested after it arrives at the Morinville plant. The finished product is also tested before it’s shipped to stores.
Getting their ingredients from skilled local producers adds another layer of protection.
“These are people we know,” Burdzy says, which means they can tell consumers how their ingredients were made. “We build trust because we know what’s in there. We ourselves put it in the bag and we know where it came from.”
Buying local also means new markets for farmers. Wild boar sales used to be very erratic, Hagman says, but Champion has created a new demand for it in Canada.
“It’s brought a whole level of stability to the industry,” he says.
Over at Sunfresh Farms, Giorgi says pet food production has let his farmers sell thousands of tonnes of produce a year that would otherwise be junked because it wasn’t perfect enough for the store.
“They were ecstatic when this happened,” he says.
Pet food adds more value to the farm, a place where many of his employees grew up, Burdzy says.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing you’re pretty close to your roots with local farmers.”
And it tastes good too – if you’re a dog, that is.