This article was published in the December 2021 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our December digital edition.

Across the country, pet food and treat brands both big and small leverage contract manufacturers to turn their nutritional concepts into trusted products. Co-manufacturers can be a vital lifeline for companies when in-house costs are prohibitive, capabilities or capacity are constrained, or processing expertise is needed to ensure the best possible product is what appears on store shelves.

Leveraging these partnerships has been invaluable for Petcurean, Chilliwack, British Columbia. In 2015, the premium pet food company partnered with Elmira Pet Products in Elmira, Ontario, to establish a manufacturing facility where Elmira would produce its pet food formulas to help the company meet growing global demand.

This co-manufacturing partnership is unique in that Petcurean owns state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment inside the plant, which is run by Elmira’s experienced team of operators. Petcurean’s nutrition and quality assurance teams are located nearby in Waterloo, Ontario, which allows for close collaboration throughout the process.

Petcurean Turkey Dinner for DogsPetcurean’s GO! SOLUTIONS food for dogs is a result of its co-manufacturing partnership with Elmira. (Source: Petcurean)

“Being in close proximity to Elmira allows our teams to work alongside their research and development teams and monitor our food production,” said Natalie Asaro, nutrition manager, Petcurean. “There is also an intangible benefit that comes with working closely with their team, which truly strengthens the symbiotic relationship we have developed, further enabling us to provide the best premium pet food products for our customers.”

Petcurean’s in-house team of pet nutrition experts are responsible for formulating the company’s products, while its co-manufacturing partners are tasked with bringing those formulations to fruition. This cooperative effort allows formulators and operators to focus on what they each do best.

Boulder, Colo.-based “I and love and you,” which offers dry and wet dog and cat foods and functional meal toppers, is also a proponent for co-manufacturing partnerships. Lindsey Rabaut, vice president of marketing, said it allows the company to remain nimble and agile.

“Utilizing a co-man network allows us to have unlimited capabilities,” she said. “If we see a consumer need and know what would solve it, we can find partners to help us bring it to life.”

The company takes a similar approach — starting with a product concept and working with a co-manufacturer to bring that idea to market — to continually innovate its portfolio. As one example, “I and love and you” relied on a co-manufacturer’s processing expertise to develop one of its fastest-growing dry dog food lines, Baked & Saucy, which it first introduced in early 2019.

Baked & Saucy is a coated kibble that can be rehydrated from “I and love and you” with help from a co-manufacturing partner.Baked & Saucy is a coated kibble that can be rehydrated from “I and love and you” with help from a co-manufacturing partner. (Source: “I and love and you”)

“This was born from the consumer insight that, as humans, we perceive that our pets get bored with their food,” Rabaut said. “Baked & Saucy allows pet owners to serve it up dry one meal and wet the next.”

By working with the co-manufacturer’s research and development and processing teams on how to coat the kibble and what equipment would be needed, the two partners “truly built the product as a team,” Rabaut shared.


Choosing the right partner

Pet food brands are faced with more scrutiny than ever in terms of product quality and safety, so building a vetted and reliable network of co-manufacturing partners is vital for continued success. This includes establishing safeguards and expectations from the very beginning.

“When partnering with a co-manufacturer, we apply rigorous quality assurance processes that are backed up by a thorough system of tests, checks and safeguards, which apply from ingredient selection right through to the manufacturing process,” Asaro said.

These safeguards include health, quality and safety testing of each batch of product at each stage of the process, and measuring against Health Canada standards for foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli, as well as other quality threats.

"By combining our expertise in pet nutrition with their expertise in manufacturing, production and food safety, we can create the safest, highest quality recipes for our pets,” said Natalie Asaro, Petcurean.

The company’s co-manufacturers maintain certifications from bodies including the European Union, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), British Retail Consortium (BRC), Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), all of which set a high bar for hygienic and safe manufacturing.

“We are 100% committed to protecting the health and wellness of our pets and, by extension, we expect the same of the suppliers and partners we work with,” Asaro said.

Sandra Perryman, director of food safety and quality, “I and love and you,” shared that aside from food safety and quality checks, her company considers several other factors, including workplace morale.

“Often, you can sense when things are amiss among employees because you will observe inefficiencies in various processes or even disagreements among line staff,” she said. “I always make a point to visit the break room to gain a better sense of the overall culture in the facility.”

When choosing a co-manufacturing partner, it’s also a good idea to ask how management has handled past issues and taken corrective action.

“If a facility says that that they have never experienced a positive test result on an environmental swab, that should tell you that their EMP program is probably not very robust,” Perryman said.

After a partner is chosen, brands can benefit from regularly visiting the facility to see the production of various products first-hand and get a general feel for the innerworkings of a facility. This way, brands can stay in-the-know, build the relationship, and address any issues that arise head-on.

Partnering with a co-manufacturer can pose some limitations, including ingredient availability and processing capabilities.

“For example, you may have to adjust your ingredient wish list to work within the confines of what the co-manufacturer already has available,” Rabaut explained. “You may also have to adjust packaging type to meet the capability of automated equipment in place.”

It’s important to consider a co-manufacturer’s equipment capabilities and capacity constraints, determining whether equipment needs to be purchased to meet demands, if training is needed for operators to produce certain products in a brand’s portfolio, and any associated cost factors.

“Utilizing a co-man network allows us to have unlimited capabilities,” said Lindsey Rabaut, “I and love and you”

Working with an open-minded partner can reap benefits in the long run, but Perryman noted that an overzealous attitude toward innovation can be a red flag in some instances. It’s best that both companies understand their limitations and keep quality, safety and the consumer in mind above all else.

“I have seen examples where a co-manufacturer will try to be many things to many different customers and, in the end, this only leads to food safety and quality errors,” she said. “I appreciate the contract manufacturers who are honest about their production and equipment capabilities and don’t make promises that in the end cannot be maintained.”


Keeping the lines open

Not unlike personal relationships, selecting a synergistic partner can result in a long-lasting union.

“Communication is key to developing and maintaining a working partnership with your co-manufacturers,” Rabaut said. “Ideally when we initiate work with a new contract manufacturer, we schedule weekly calls for at least the first 12 months to discuss all aspects of a new project.”

All things considered, clear expectations and clearer communication have resulted in many mutually beneficial relationships between pet food and treat brands and contract manufacturers across the country.

“Our co-manufacturing partnerships allow for true collaboration,” Asaro said. “Being able to connect regularly allows our teams to work very closely with each other in order to monitor our food production and the development of new recipes.

“To get the most out of a co-manufacturing partnership, we strongly feel that you need to find partners you can trust and that align with your own vision and values,” she concluded. “Choosing partners with expertise in the field is also key, and the ability to work closely together will result in a successful partnership.”

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