By B.C. HeNsCHeN
The other day I overheard a couple of guys talking about who should be on the
best-players-ever list. I replied
with, “Of course Peter should be
on that list.” One guy asked, “Do
you mean Pete Rose?” Pete Rose?
I’m not sure who he was talking
about, but my mind already is
spinning with my top five.
I tell them “Peter Atkins,
co-founder of Natura Pet Prod-
ucts; Reiner Muhlenfeld, found-
er of Champion Petfoods; Peter
Muhlenfeld, vice president of
sales and marketing for Cham-
pion Petfoods; Tom Nieman,
founder of Fromm Family Foods,
and of course John Rademakers,
co-founder of Natura Pet.”
As they walked away, be-
mused, I felt they weren’t talking
about the “best players ever in the
pet food manufacturing game.”
I preach that retailers should
visit the manufacturers they rep-
resent and ask lots of questions.
Walking a plant floor and seeing
the machinery and how it works,
as well as looking over the ingre-
dients are all important. My main
motivation during a tour is to meet
key people you probably won’t
run into at a trade show.
Manufacturing pet foods safe-
ly and with the right ingredients
is a difficult game that really boils
down to people. The key to manu-
facturing a great food usually is the
extruder operator and the quality
and safety teams. Talk with those
people and you will learn more
about that pet food than you ever
would at a trade show.
Recently I visited Champion
Petfoods’ brand-new kitchens in
Auburn, Ky. I was excited for this
trip because I finally could see
with my own eyes what Champion has preached for years—that it
does things differently.
I have visited many manufacturing facilities; they all share
similarities. Typically, the outside resembles a large industrial
building with some silos and is
stuck in the middle of a cornfield
or an industrial park. Inside is a
receiving area, possibly two, for
ingredients. The next area usually is the prep area, where ingredients are ground and blended.
Next comes the extruder. Then,
finally, is drying and coating in
the packaging area. Everyone
does things a bit differently, but
those are the basics.
When I pulled into the parking
lot, Champion’s facility appeared
to fall in line with the huge industrial building stuck into a rural area
idea, but there were noticeable differences. The first thing I noticed
was its massiveness. When I visited the Natura plant it was 150,000
square feet (it has since added on),
and this one is more than 370,000
I didn’t see the typical massive
yard of semi trucks or towers or
grain silos. Champion obvious-
ly designed the property so the
transportation side is unnoticeable
from the entrance.
I witnessed the no-silo movement years ago, when John Rademakers built his Natura plant in
2003 with a large, one-of-a-kind
concrete tower that offered better
material handling and food safety than any metal silo. Champion
took that concept one step further by completely eliminating
those large bulk-storage buildings. All ingredients are stored
inside the building.
The interior is equally impressive. Frankly, I expected no less
because I hold Champion in such
high regard, and I knew everything would be bright and shiny.
More differences between a typical pet food manufacturing facility and the new Champion facility
became apparent literally with
our first step. We stood in a huge
refrigerator—and I’m not talking
about going into a big walk-in
cooler. No, 25,000 square feet
of this building is a refrigerator.
Forklifts and equipment operate
inside this massive refrigerator.
I noticed equipment I hadn’t
seen before. One was a plate freezer—a massive piece that freezes
ingredients for proper storage.
Champion uses some seasonal ingredients that are hard to find off
season. The plate freezer allows
the company to purchase large
quantities of seasonal fresh ingredients and freeze them for later
use. The freeze-drying operation
wasn’t anything new, but Champion freeze dries ingredients that
then are used in its kibble in addition to making its freeze-dried
foods and treats.
In the extrusion area and drying area, I learned about the processes and equipment Champion
uses to make its high-meat-inclu-sion kibble. It’s impressive.
I haven’t talked a lot about
food safety, but trust me—Cham-
pion is trendsetting in that de-
partment. In fact, when the FDA
If someone drops their keys in,
they’ll be caught. Plastic, bone
fragments, hair—well, the mag-
net isn’t real helpful there.
One heavily promoted aspect
of this state-of-the-art kitchen is
the control room, which I was
apprehensive about. I admit, it
is impressive; it resembles an air
traffic control center, with racks
of servers and walls of monitors.
This control room monitors every
aspect of the kitchen. It knows ingredient temperatures, formulas,
machine specifications and so
I was apprehensive because
I feared automation had taken
control of everything. Making a
kibble with an extrusion process
truly is an art. Ingredients aren’t
always identical because they
once were living animals. Some
variations are acceptable, but the
process requires modification
to make a consistent product. I
was worried they had removed
that human touch. However, the
extrusion operators are still the
chefs; they monitor the processes
and the product, and fine-tune it
as needed. Sometimes, when the
stress of running my own busi-
ness gets me down, I dream about
having a job as an extrusion oper-
ator. That’s not weird, is it?
I was very happy with what I
saw and heard on this tour, but
I really am only touching on a
fraction of it. I also spoke with
ingredient suppliers, contractors
who built the place and more.
Every question was answered
honestly and thoroughly. I even
asked a question that many companies will not answer under
the umbrella of “proprietary information,” but company reps
answered it and simply asked
me not to share it. Why is that
so important to me? That’s how
I know I am talking honestly to
my customers. I sure hope other
manufacturers pay attention to
what Champion is doing.
B.C. HeNsCHeN, a certified pet care technician and an
accredited pet trainer, is a partner in Pla TINum Paws,
a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in
Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry
makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners
who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf.
Champion of Champions
A visit to Champion Petfoods’ brand-new facility reveals what it has preached for years—that it does things differently.