When you need an expensive piece of equipment for a home project, or a truck for a moving project, do you rent or buy?
Purchasing the necessary equipment gives you complete control over the machinery. It also dumps full responsibility for maintenance and upkeep on your shoulders.
Renting gets the job done for a fraction of the cost, and shifts some costs and responsibility to the equipment owner. These trade-offs also exist for many pet food companies.
When looking at a new pet food, or re-evaluating a familiar one, a common question is “where is it made”? These days, pet foods made in China are often dismissed or given less consideration. But what about pet foods from Canada, New Zealand or right here in the USA?
The country of origin is just one factor in the quality of a food
Chinese-produced food, or Chinese ingredients are regarded with skepticism following the multiple recalls of 2007-8. An often forgotten detail of those recalls was that it was not Chinese food, but a Chinese ingredient, that was responsible for the recalls.
The majority of pet foods sold in the USA use ingredients sourced from around the world. Often, some of these may come from China. You won’t see ingredients listed that way, but it is rare for a food to source 100% of its vitamins and minerals domestically.
The origin of specific ingredients is not the only pet food detail sometimes shrouded in mystery. Some pet food companies are less than forthcoming about where their foods are produced, claiming the information is “proprietary.”
Does the ownership of a pet food manufacturing plant make a difference?
Three companies, Simmons Pet Food, Diamond Pet Company, and CJ Foods manufacture foods for more than two dozen different pet food brands. You may be surprised to learn that the food you’re feeding is not made in a manufacturing plant owned by the company that appears on the label.
Does this factor into how you view a pet food? Contract facilities, also known as co-packers, operate under strict supervision. They are equipped to manufacture multiple formulas from different brands using a wide variety of ingredient sources.
Company-owned manufacturing facilities produce their own pet food formulas. They may also manufacture products for other companies. Ingredient sourcing is handled by the brand, since it operates its own manufacturing facility.
Cost is a major factor in co-packing
It can be more cost-effective for a pet food company to farm out the production of its foods. This allows the brand to concentrate on formulation and marketing.
Co-packing shifts the costs of building, operating and maintaining a complicated pet food manufacturing facility to a third party. Quality control (QC) is often handled by the manufacturing facility according to brand specifications. QC can also include on-site visits from brand representatives, ongoing testing during stages of production and testing of the finished product.
Each brand remains responsible for the food produced by a co-packer. After all, their name still goes on the bag even though they did not manufacture it. With proper instructions, oversight, and testing, this arrangement works quite nicely for many pet food brands.
Some brands choose to own their manufacturing plants
While the initial cost of building and operating a manufacturing facility is high, some brands find they gain more control over quality and production this way.
Operating a brand-owned plant can reduce the potential of recipes being changed, unapproved ingredients being introduced and shortages resulting from scheduling conflicts.
Company-owned plants may also be in a better position to ensure QC, since the brand is responsible and on-site for every step of production. This does not guarantee that all issues will be identified and addressed before a problem arises.
Both contract facilities and company owned plants have their share of problems
Some notable challenges have arisen in both contract and company-owned facilities including:
- Blue Buffalo recently settled a lawsuit that resulted from an unauthorized ingredient being used in their foods which are produced by a contact facility. It remains unclear which party “should” have caught this error prior to manufacturing.
- Precise Pet Foods, which produces food in their company-owned facility, has been experiencing spot shortages of some sizes and formulas this year. These are a result of management changes and had nothing to do with Quality Control.
- Champion Pet Foods, which makes Orijen and Acana, has completed the construction of a new manufacturing facility in Kentucky. This has resulted in product shortages as production shifts from their Canadian facility to the new Kentucky plant.
- Menu Foods (now owned by Simmons) was the contract facility which produced the majority of foods affected by tainted ingredients in the 2007-8 pet food recalls.
- Hi-Tek Rations’ company-owned facility has been cited for health and safety violations.
- Diamond’s contract facility was slapped with fines and issued multiple recalls for its own and 3rd party products.
- Purina’s company owned facility has been repeatedly cited for health violations. An FDA report recently released to the public cites troubling issues with multiple Purina plants producing their Beneful foods.
Neither third party nor company owned facilities can completely ensure safety and health compliance
Quality control standards should remain the responsibility of a pet food brand, regardless of whether a food is produced by a co-packing or company-owned facility.
Co-packers have and continue to do a remarkable job in juggling multiple recipes from a variety of brands. This appears to be more of a challenge than a single company producing its own products.
By removing an entire layer of outside involvement from the production of a food, it stands to reason that QC may be more tightly controlled in a company-owned facility.
From a purely subjective perspective, we believe that foods produced in plants owned by a pet food brand have a better chance of following through on their QC commitments. That’s not to say these brands are problem-free, as evidenced by some of the examples shown above.
Pet food brands often use different co-packers for their dry and canned formulas
A further complication can arise when brands use multiple manufacturing plants for the same formula, dry or canned foods.
Some of the larger pet food companies, as well as the larger co-packers, operate multiple production plants, both domestically and overseas. This allows for increased production and better distribution in different regions of the country and globally.
Multiple production location facilities make date and batch codes even more important. A recalled food produced in one plant may be recalled, while the same formula, produced on the same day in a different location may be unaffected.
We’d like to think that whether a production plant is owned by a manufacturer or 3rd party, the management of that plant takes its responsibility for health and safety seriously. Some of the reports coming from FDA and USDA inspections have raised questions about both.
Remember the last time you rented a car? Did you treat it as if it were your own? Or did you take extra care because you were on the hook if something went wrong? Ownership can but does not always mean a more diligent eye.
Who makes what for whom is a list that changes constantly
The following list includes pet food brands who currently produce their dry foods in company-owned manufacturing facilities. They may also produce other brands of food in addition to their own.
Very few of these companies produce both dry and canned foods under their own name, since most canned foods are co-packed. This is not a complete list, and may be outdated by the time you read this.
- Acana (Champion)
- by Nature (Kent)
- Eagle (WellPet)
- Earthborn Holistics (Midwestern)
- Hills (Science Diet)
- Merrick (owned by Purina)
- Natural Balance
- Natural Planet Organics (KLN)
- NutriSource ((KLN)
- Orijen (Champion)
- Pure Vita (KLN)
- Spring Naturals
- Wellness (WellPet)
Do you know of a pet food company not appearing on this list that produces its own dry foods? Let us know so we can keep this list updated.
Lorie C says
Has the WellPet company had any violations lately? I put my dog on Eagle Pack dry food and now wonder if it’s healthy. Thank you
Thanks for your inquiry, Lorie.
WellPet recently had a recall for one of their canned cat formulas and a couple of their canned dog formulas. I’m not aware of any recent dry food formulas from WellPet, including Eagle Pack, that have had recent recalls.
Any clue who manufactures both wet and dry for natures variety instinct and also their pride line?
Thanks for your inquiry, Rachel-
My understanding is that Nature’s Variety does not own their own manufacturing plant. Their foods are made in plants located in Nebraska and Kansas.
Sheila Lacey says
I did contact Natures Variety yesterday and they told me that their Raw Formulas are made in a plant owned by them. The rest of their food is made by either CJ Pets or Simmons. Both of these companies make dog food for multiple companies. They also said yes there are some ingredients from China but they oursource them very carefully (whatever that means)
I appreciate the clarification. Many, but not all, of the raw food brands have their own manufacturing facility. It’s primarily kibble and canned foods that are co-packed.
Is this list of brands who make their own food just listing companies that make ALL of their dry food in their own plants? Does this mean that these brands make all of their own dry foods, or just some of their dry foods.
I know that Blue Buffalo has at least one plant that they own for making dry food, and I heard talk of more building, but I’m not sure of the status.
So, I’m wondering if Blue Buffalo should be included in this list?
Thanks for your inquiry, Regina-
This list was intended to reflect brands that manufacture all of their own dry foods. It does not include brands that produce some dry food in a company-owned facility and others by co-packers. To the best of my knowledge, it was accurate at the time of publication, but things change very quickly in the industry.
Venture Capital money, buyouts and mergers can all affect who makes what where. In another year of 3 this list may look quite different.
M Darling says
Hello. I currently feed my animals Fromm and have had good results, mostly with my cat who I have somehow figured can only eat beef based, non-grain food! However I was wondering you know of any other family owned companies out there other than Fromm? I thought that Orijen and Acana were originally family based or at least a smaller, more private company? I am looking to find an alternative, or at least something I can switch around with so that they’re not always on exactly the same food and I have an alternative if they develop issues? Sort of a rotating diet idea. Thank you!
Thanks very much for your inquiry- what an interesting question!
Almost every pet food company started out as a “smaller, more private” company which was family owned. Your best bet for seeking these out is to look for locally-based foods which may only be available in your area. In our service area (Seattle) there are smaller, family-owned companies producing raw foods- Raw Advantage, Rad Cat Raw and Natural Pet Pantry.
Family-owned and small are not mutually exclusive. Many family-owned pet food companies that are distributed nationally are no longer small. The majority of these private, family-owned companies do not manufacture their own food, since the cost of building and maintaining a production facility is too expensive. This is not necessarily bad- it depends on who they contract with and how rigid their quality control standards are for production.
There are quite a few private, family-owned (or controlled) companies, although they may or may not be available in your area. With apologies to those companies that may be missing, here’s a short list of those available within our (Seattle) service area:
Answers Pet Food
KLN (Natural Planet Organics, NutriSource, PureVita)
Natural Pet Pantry
Rad Cat Raw
Stella & Chewy’s
There are many other excellent companies producing pet food that now either have private equity money behind them or have been bought by a larger parent company. These all started as small, family-owned ventures, and some still have the original owner involved, while others have transitioned management.
While size and management certainly factor into your decision, company philosophy and product quality may not always be determined by those requirements. You may get exactly the results you’re after by first looking at what is available in your area, narrowing down the choices based on quality, and selecting your finalist from that list based on ownership and size. It’s quite possible that what you find may be something you’ve never heard of before!
s barrett says
I just today read that Acana’s parent company CHAMPION (Acana and Orijen both) has built an American facilty in Kentucky. I’m with M. Darling above, and have fears of ranging out in brands away from Fromm and Acana, but for my dog! I had also trusted Solid Gold, but now am unsure of co-packing and potential deviation of ingredients by any co-packer….it would be good to know which dog chow (and cat chow) companies can actually guarantee trusted (and continually tested) sources of their ingredients, to reduce the many dangers.
Yes, Champion built a new manufacturing facility which opened in the summer of 2016. They continue to source most of their ingredients regionally, which is why the Canadian and US formulations differ.
Without making it an ongoing project, it is next to impossible to completely guarantee and trust the source of ingredients of any food. There is continued consolidation in the industry which changes ownership, formulations, manufacturing process, ingredient sourcing and distribution. All companies have quality control measures in place, but mistakes or breakdowns can and do happen at any point in the process.
That said, some companies exercise tighter control over their manufacturing and ingredient sourcing than others. This list can change as well, since trusted suppliers may not be able to produce the volume needed or as new products are introduced. In the case of co-packers, a small substitution that seems benign can cause a host of issues.
The best course of action is to find a food that feeds well, get to know and trust the company (go as deep into their process as possible) and continue to check their standards. If and when a problem or recall arises, consider the factors behind it. Was it due to carelessness or an honest mistake? How does the company handle communication and the recall itself? When a company places its trust in a co-packer and is surprised by the result, could or should quality control standards have been better?
Trusting a food goes beyond the marketing claims from the manufacturer. Much can be learned from the way they position themselves with QA standards, communication, consistency of sources and philosophy. As ownership or formulas change, your process must be repeated.
Canidae only produces a few of their own products. Here’s the message I received from them yesterday:
Thank you for your interest in CANIDAE Pet Foods. The majority of our food is made at Ethos Pet Nutrition. Ethos Pet Nutrition is CANIDAE’s own facility located in Brownwood, Texas. We also have our recipes produced at several other facilities across the United States including Diamond Pet, Performance Pet, and Hampshire Pet. These facilities are all committed to achieving CANIDAE’s extremely high standards for quality and safety.
The products that are solely manufactured at Ethos are Pure Wild, Pure Ridge, Petite and Under The Sun. Please let us know if you have any other questions. Thanks again!
My dog was recently in the hospital for sudden high elevated liver enzymes and jaundice – quite sick. After a long process of elimination, I think there was something wrong with a sack of very premium dog food, which only became obvious after 90% of the bag was gone. I can’t prove anything, and do not have the energy to fight…I’d guess it was a quality control failure at an unknown manufacturing company, perhaps for a very small number of bags.
My dog is much better now. However, I learned a lot:
1) this is a very informative page
2) another page with good advice is https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/brand-guidelines/. The only company I find that unambiguously meets these standards (and more) is http://www.championpetfoods.com, which makes the Orijen and Acana labels.
3) Champion is the only company I found that is clearly “transparent” – for example, the video link on this page: https://acana.com/?lang=usa . I’d also recommend their FAQ page at https://acana.com/faq/?lang=usa
My dog is doing extremely well on Orijen. He’d probably do as well on Acana, which costs less. There are probably other great dog foods. But I’m not finding any other company that is as transparent as Champion, and has as many awards to brag about, credible investment in their kitchens, and an interesting research unit.
There’s no excuse for all other brands failing to be similarly transparent on their web sites. We shouldn’t have to rely on individual emails to ask pet food companies such basic questions about their products.
Thanks for your comments, Kathey-
Glad to hear your dog is doing better after the recent episode. You make some very good points.
Yes, despite their size, Champion is among the leaders in transparency for kibble manufacturers. You’ll often find a similar level of transparency from most of the raw, dehydrated and freeze-dried manufacturers.
Keep in mind that even the “best” food manufacturers can experience issues with their products through no fault of their own. Once finished packages are loaded on to a truck for distribution, another series of challenges can arise. The ultimate responsibility lies with the manufacturer despite a trucking, distribution or retail handling issue.
Even the “best” manufacturers can face unexpected issues at times. Champion has just had a class action lawsuit filed against them with plaintiffs from 3 states claiming heavy metal contamination in their food. Knowing how a company responds to reports of problems is often just as important as the transparency they provide on their website.
The Dog Food Advisor is an excellent resource, as long as the information provided there (and here!) is kept in perspective. No one review criteria is universally accepted as the “only” way to evaluate a food. Educating yourself and referring to multiple resources can offer a much more complete and useful picture.
Hailey Perkins says
Precise is our number one go to food. We run a boarding kennel and feed it to the boarding dogs as well. We have watched customer after customer switch to this brand and the itching stops, ear infections go away, the dogs are happier!
Good to know others are experiencing the same results as many of our clients. Precise may not be the “fanciest” food but it’s a solid performer and an excellent value.