Pet Age recently chatted with Andrea Coffman and April Scott, two members of the Champion Petfoods Transparency Council, after they participated in an immersion experience earlier this year at the company’s DogStar Kitchen in Auburn, Kentucky, where they learned about product recipes, nutritional standards, food preparation and safety procedures.
Q How do you see nutrition impacting a pet’s health and how does it pertain to you and your dog?
(Andrea) Nutrition is, undeniably, one of the most influential factors in our health—it’s our body’s fuel for daily life, exercise, immune response and general well-being, and the same holds true for our pets. We can’t underestimate or overvalue the impact of a healthy diet. The nutrition that comes from real, whole food ingredients can’t be matched by synthetic vitamins and minerals. Food is a far more powerful medicine than we give it credit for. High quality nutrition from real, whole foods has the power to combat and prevent cardio metabolic, autoimmune and even pathogenic diseases.
When our dog, Stella, started displaying seizure activity shortly after her first birthday. We took her to multiple vets who ran tests upon tests, resulting in no obvious answers. We weren’t ready to put her on medication, especially at such a young age and without concrete answers, so we looked to nutrition as our first line of defense. After switching her to a rotation of ORIJEN and ACANA, her seizures began to dissipate, eventually disappearing. She has now been seizure free for over two years, and is thriving.
Q With regard of how you feed your pet, what value do you place on a pet food’s ingredient label?
(April) What I feed my pet has become more important to me and the health of my pet. The more I learn about the pet food industry, the more I wish I would have been as informed as I am today. My pet food journey began in 2006, when I got my first dog, a big beautiful black labrador named Quazar. I didn’t place a high value on label contents and rather just picked out what I thought was best based solely upon names I had heard before. Quazar ended up having challenges as a puppy; he was vomiting a lot and not thriving. I wanted to better understand how dog food was labeled, so I started to look at each ingredient on the label and looked up what the definition was of each item on the label and what it meant. I then looked for a dog food that was full of real meat and no by-products or questionable preservatives. I now place the utmost value on the food ingredients label since this is how you know exactly what is in the bag and what you are feeding to your best friend. My new puppy, Vega, is a chocolate labrador that is benefiting from eating ORIJEN and is thriving.
(Andrea) The ingredient label will make or break a pet food for me. I look at the top five to ten ingredients and expect to see real, whole foods, with meat proteins making up the majority. Ingredients are listed by pre-cooked weight, which is another thing to consider. It looks great if chicken is the first ingredient, but it’s important to take in to account that chicken is, on average, 75 percent water (USDA), and most of that will be cooked out. So, if the next four ingredients are grains and fillers, that’s actually what is comprising most of the food. Now, I don’t believe that non-GMO, whole grains are inherently bad. In limited quantities, they can be an especially great source of fiber. Meats, fruits and vegetables are what should provide the nutrition profile of a food, with protein, fat and amino acids coming from meats, and fruits and veggies contributing starches, vitamins and minerals.
Q How did your tour of the DogStar Kitchen compare with your expectations?
(April) My tour of DogStar Kitchen went above my expectations. The building was bright and clean, they put a lot of emphasis on keeping everything sterile and ensuring that there was never any cross contamination from one section to another during the manufacturing process. There were special foot protections in use, smocks, hair net, goggles, and shoe sanitization units throughout the building. They ensured that we took all proper precautions and followed the outlined protocols as we toured the kitchen. Truthfully, the place was a work of art. It was pleasing to see how much care and research they did when putting this new kitchen together. I was impressed that they had their own in-house sanitation team who ensure food safety during the manufacturing process. During the tour we saw all aspects of the kitchen and food-making process, nothing was off limits, from where the ingredients started to when they ended up in a finished bag of pet food. What a great experience to see, knowing that my pet food is being handled with such care and respect for safety.
Q What was the most important question that you had going into the tour and how was it answered?
(April) I was curious how they choose their formulas including protein levels, amino acid levels, calcium vs phosphorus levels, etc. This was answered openly and they shared that they have a BAFRINO (Biologically Appropriate Fresh Regional Ingredients Never Outsourced) institute that consists of experts with PhD’s, nutritionists and veterinarians that look at the latest research in pet foods and make formula changes accordingly. When they are developing a formula change or new formula they first test the product in small batches in their small kitchen at the BAFRINO institute, lab tested for amino acids, fats, protein levels, etc. From here they move on to feeding trials once all specs are met. They took all the time needed to answer my questions and we discussed the subject until everyone was satisfied. Sometimes this took longer than expected, but they were very open and honest and shied away from nothing.
(Andrea) I went in with so many questions, but I think the most important wasn’t one that I had to vocalize, but rather one I had to find the answer to internally, and one that many pet owners ask: what is the best food I can feed my dogs?
Touring Champion’s kitchens, I saw firsthand the planning, care and intention that goes in to each batch of food they produce, and it truly exceeded my expectations. The BAFRINO (Biologically Appropriate, Fresh Regional Ingredients, Never Outsourced) mission drives everything Champion does; it’s their North Star. If an ingredient isn’t biologically appropriate for a dog or cat, you won’t find it in Champion’s foods. Regional suppliers mean fresher, more nutrient-dense ingredients. Never outsourcing means Champion oversees every step of food development, from concept to store shelves. BAFRINO provides not only a backbone for the company’s mission and values, but a standard that the rest of the pet food industry should be held to, and that few, if any, can meet.
Q Did your visit to DogStar Kitchen and Champion ingredient suppliers change your opinion of Champion and how dog food can be manufactured?
(April) We toured a catfish fish supplier. I was expecting a large scale supplier, a bit more commercial in nature. We met with a few individuals that loved their job and treated the fish with care and respect, and yes they were caught live and fresh out of the water. We saw the way they catch the fish, how they pull the fish from the water and how they keep them alive until they are ready to be transitioned for the use at the kitchen. All in all the processes that are in place are extremely impressive and I am proud to feed their food to my dogs.
(Andrea) One thing that has never sat well with me is the fact that large pet food companies intentionally produce a range of qualities of foods, the majority of them primarily made up of cheap fillers, “mystery meats” and synthetic ingredients. They churn them out as quickly as possible, and market them as a nutritious food for pets, all for the sake of profit. If a company truly cares about its consumers and the well-being of their pets, why would they deliberately produce anything less than the very best they have to offer?
My visit brought me a lot of clarity not only about how my dog’s food is manufactured, and the processes truly exceeded my expectations. From the first stages of product development to when the product reaches pet food bowls, Champion has thought of everything. Every single bag that come off the line are scanned for contaminants and abnormalities, each batch is tested for nutritional balance and quality control, and Champion can trace every single ingredient in a bag back to the supplier. The attention to detail, safety, and quality throughout every stage reflects a process crafted with care and consideration for the animals that will be eating the food.