Beef industry could learn from ‘Champion’ pet food maker

The Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence is a great start, as long as we fully understand our customers

Border collie walking on grass, tongue lolling out of mouth

Mankind has long claimed the sharing of food is an international activity that crosses all borders and beliefs. Ancient history depicts food in love and war and those recordings in stone, paper, parchment, canvas and thread always included other under-the-table guests. For 10,000 years these revered companions, dog or cat, have occupied our historical pages.

Fast-forward to today and we have for the first time in history elevated the companion animal to almost human status. Nearly 40 per cent of all households have a dog and 40 per cent do have a cat. Canadians now spend 2.0 per cent of their disposable income on pet food compared to eight per cent of their disposable income on feeding themselves. The revenue from dog and cat food sales alone grows over four per cent per year and recently rivalled the value of the entire Canadian beef industry at nearly $2 billion.

The pet food industry is also host to massive growth in organic product and in fact is the sales leader in this category. As dogs and cats age, the need for specialized diets is growing and just as we supply the best for our working dogs, so too do people want diets for their aging dogs. Breaking into any pet market is not easy especially if you are trying to source ingredients locally for a variety of diets, but one Canadian company out of Alberta has done this and keeps gathering awards internationally.

Champion Petfoods now sells a carnivore-based selection of pet foods into 72 countries. I have long followed its story not only because of its success, but because I like the strategy behind the business. The client of course is the dog or cat and the science behind feeding them is in understanding the digestive system of each. And while research can deliver the technical details, it cannot hand you a 72-country client base that generates 66 per cent of your revenue internationally.

When recently interviewed by Alberta Venture, CEO Frank Burdzy said something that caught my eye when he referred to manufacturing by declaring that regardless of the destination of the product, it was manufactured to the highest standard. In the case of dog and cat food, that is to EU standard. When I read this I thought of the beef industry and our past reluctance to set the bar at a standard that was uncomfortable and unfamiliar. These shifts don’t come easily and Champion had to get everyone on board from ingredients to delivery to make the company an international success.

The result was regenerative, meaning that by going beyond the standard of excellence we employ here in Canada to an even higher standard, it continued to generate sales in new countries and for new product. I liken it to the recent experience on our farm shipping semen to Australia. Finding the partners took extra time but once we met the hardest and highest standard for that product we now can ship worldwide. Our domestic semen comes from the same tank, ensuring the client the highest standard available.

In the interview, Burdzy also referred to the importance of image — something the beef industry clearly understands. The idea of our mountains and waterfalls under those ever blue skies tends to bring a breath of freshness to the image of food produced in Canada. Yes it is an Alberta image but that is what buyers relate to when it comes to food and food products, pet foods and health food from their international perspective. It seems to not be oversold and customers have never tired of it so it remains in the industry’s best interest to continue to sell that image.

The term “local” is becoming a stronger selling point for all food and food products including dog and cat food. Champion took its plant to the food source when it simply could not get enough fish in landlocked Alberta. Its new Kentucky plant works with fishermen and catfish farms to supply the needs of the plant. The idea of taking the plant closer to the source has long been a sore spot for Canadians in the food-processing business but there are gaps in specialized production and processing. We have to ask: is it wise to have interdependence in an industry on three large kill floors or should we be also looking at the marketplace, the source of product and moving manufacturing around to make it all work?

Like the little engine that could, this small family-owned company continues to grow and will build new kitchen and lab space in Alberta with a price tag of $5.9 million and add a new kitchen to the plant in Kentucky.

Our investment in the $3.8-million Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence is a great start in the right direction if we first take the time and effort to fully understand our customer so the recommendations for new products and product testing meet their needs.

As for regulatory frustration and the demands of other countries, perhaps we can take a page out of the Champion playbook of getting around all of that with value-added product(s) that use ingredients that are not outsourced and produced to the highest-known international standard. History is made by bringing people together to share food, ideas, debate and innovation at the same table. One under which a beloved cat or dog most certainly and contentedly sleeps.

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