More and more people are concerned with eating healthier, local, sustainable and environmentally responsible food, but perhaps no one is more devoted to these food tenets than pet owners. Actually, says Mike Fuccillo of Champion Petfoods, the phrase is “pet lovers,” since the founders at Champion “never believed you can own a pet.” Whatever you call them, Champion’s customers are on the ball. Here’s just one example: “We’d changed a formulation just a bit and it brought down the potassium by 2%,” recalls Fuccillo, whose communication department was immediately inundated with calls from concerned consumers. “They asked, ‘Why did you do that? What was the reason?’ It’s amazing how knowledgeable these people are.”
If Fuccillo seems surprised, it’s because he’s new at Champion, alongside also-new CEO Blaine McPeak, who took over last summer when chief brand officer Peter Muhlenfeld retired. Muhlenfeld inherited the company from his father, Reinhard, who founded Champion in Barrhead, Alta., in 1985. “Reinhard was a German immigrant who worked in a feed mill and saw a business opportunity because there were few, if any, Canadian manufacturers of pet food,” says Fuccillo. His goal was to use top-quality ingredients from local suppliers—whom he very conveniently already knew—to make the very best pet food on the market.
This passion remains the company’s driving force, as evidenced by Champion’s ever-evolving roster of about 65 recipes. “Notice we call them recipes, and not products,” notes Fuccillo. They’re all cooked up quite fittingly in three “kitchens, not factories” because “kitchens are places for culinary arts.” Two kitchens in Alberta and one in Kentucky, plus office headquarters in Edmonton, employ more than 600 people, including scientists, chefs and nutritionists to make every recipe in-house and from scratch. “We cook longer and dry slower,” says Fuccillo. “We’re not just a company that puts a bunch of stuff in a bag and tries to sell it.”
The so-called “world’s best pet food” uses the highest level of “biologically appropriate” food—a term that is often tossed around the industry now, but which Champion believes it coined. “Basically, it means food from the ancestral diet, or what animals would have eaten in the wild thousands of years ago,” says Fuccillo. This vetoes fillers, artificial flavours and weird meats that your Canadian pup would never have had the opportunity to stumble upon. For your picky cat, meanwhile, this means forking out for the whole fish instead of just discarded heads and tails. “This is part of the reason we’re more expensive,” admits Fuccillo, “but we’re worth it.”
Hyper-vigilant consumers can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they have the highest standards and are willing to pay whatever it costs. On the other, they are particular and demanding and will absolutely sue if they feel you’ve wronged or hurt their pet. While the Pet Food Association of Canada ensures food contents are correctly listed on the package, pet food companies largely self-regulate their products and rely on the honour system—which makes them particularly vulnerable to lawsuits. As Champion grew in size (in the mid-’90s, there were just a dozen employees; its workforce is more than 50 times that now) and scope (Champion is now available in more than 90 countries around the globe), the company found itself often in court.
Most companies would sweep those stories under the rug, but Champion subscribes to radical honesty. In fact, it created an entire “transparency council” to provide the public with as much info as possible. Legal papers are available in downloadable PDFs on the Champion website, and its FAQs are refreshingly full of straight answers to honest questions: “There are so many lawsuits. What’s wrong with Champion?” and “How do we know Champion foods are safe?” and “Are any of your foods recalled?”
There hasn’t been a single recall in all these years, boasts Fuccillo, which is no small feat in the pet food business. “It’s a matter of pride to make something that’s the best,” he says. “We’re very proud of what we do, and everyone here is very passionate.” About pet food, yes, but about pets most of all. Champion’s walls are covered with employees’ photos of their furry friends, who promptly become familiar, since Champion’s Take Your Pet to Work Day happens every week.