ST. JOSEPH, MO. — Billie Johnson, Ph.D., began her career in the pet food industry conducting routine QA testing on canned dog food. Over the following 23 years, she honed her knowledge of all things food safety and quality assurance. Today, Johnson oversees food safety and regulatory compliance across nine facilities for BHJ USA and BHJ Canada, where she has achieved numerous milestones for PCQI, Food Defense, HACCP and GMP trainings, as well as for audit compliance.
“I was blessed to have strong mentors… who recognized my potential and helped me move forward in my career and expose me to every side of the pet industry,” she said.
In the following Q&A, Johnson shares her journey from humble beginnings to becoming an expert in her field, with extensive knowledge of internal and GFSI-certified auditing, HACCP, Preventive Controls development and in-process raw material food safety testing.
PFP: Tell us about your business or career in the pet industry.
Johnson: I am a part of BHJ USA and BHJ Canada (BHJ North America), which means that I oversee nine plants in North America. BHJ is essentially a further processor of meat and slaughter materials where we will sort, grind, debone and make fresh slurry materials and/or frozen blocks of meat proteins. This includes poultry, pork, beef, fish, and unique protein materials as needed for our pet food manufacturing customers.
BHJ’s philosophy is to be the preferred supplier for our customers because we reduce the complexity of the supply chain components, making a quality product for our customers. If our customers need a custom-blended product, we can provide this service. We strive to be the leader in supply chain services by making top quality and food safe product, having achieved GFSI certification (FSSC 22000). Overall, we have 400+ employees with plants in Alberta and Ontario, Canada, as well as in California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska.
PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?
Johnson: I started as a QA technician for Menu Foods in Emporia, Kan., about a year after the plant had been newly built. The vision of Robert Bras, owner of Menu Foods at that time, helped formulate my understanding of quality and food safety for the pet food industry. He instilled in our team members the need to meet and exceed customer expectations and ensure pets are provided good quality, food-safe pet food.
I was working as what I called a “dog food hauler,” carrying in cases of canned pet food each morning to do routine QA testing. I was blessed to have strong mentors, like Jim Barritt, Steve Lindsay, and Dr. Rick Shields, who recognized my potential and helped me move forward in my career and exposed me to every side of the pet industry.
Within the ingredient manufacturing side over the last few years, I have been guided by strong beliefs by Rod Deibert and Thomas Bendix Christensen, who encourage a holistic approach to making pet food ingredients for our customers.
PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?
Johnson: Several challenges are expected when working in the pet food industry. One of the biggest lessons I had to learn early on was that even though I may have a well-organized, process-driven mentality, some days the to-do list might go out the window because a more pressing matter takes precedence. Learning to identify the most pressing matters and how to handle them without going into “panic mode” is an important part of professional development within the pet food industry.
PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.
Johnson: This occurred early in my career when I was still learning about the pet food process and how to do audits. The first GFSI audit in which I participated, I only listened throughout the audit so that I could learn. My first BRC auditor was John Clemence and he was a fantastic teacher. Years later, as I had learned so much about the auditing process and food safety standards, I was asked to be part of the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance editorial team for writing the Preventive Controls for Animal Food training manual for the Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Animal Food regulation (referred to as the Preventive Controls for Animal Food regulation), which is intended to ensure safe manufacturing/processing, packing and holding of food products for animal consumption.
PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?
Johnson: Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza is a concern overall for the pet food industry, as are the issues around labor shortages.
PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?
Johnson: Internet sales will not go away; this is something that will continue to increase. Social media also plays a large part in the pet food industry – increasing awareness in the types of pet foods available, and people making editorials on the pet food is something we see more and more of. Getting a pet was something that increased in the last few years as well.
PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?
Johnson: Regulatory requirements for making pet food is as stringent as — if not more than — human food processing. We must abide by the guidelines set forth by several regulatory agencies, labeling requirements, export requirements, etc., so making pet food is a much more in-depth process.
PFP: What advice would you give to young people starting their careers in this industry?
Johnson: Be willing to learn and understand the process. Not everything in pet food processing is a regimented program. Rather, the process can be adjusted to meet the expectations and specifications. Always be willing to think outside the box and try new avenues.
PFP: Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.
Johnson: I have three boxers, and they are definitely spoiled babies.
PFP: Any final advice for other women in the pet industry?
Johnson: In a society that doesn’t seem to think hard work matters, work hard anyway because it means something to you and your integrity overall.
Billie Johnson, Ph.D., earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science and biology from East Texas State University, followed by her doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Oklahoma. Prior to joining BHJ North America, she worked with Menu Foods and Simmons Pet Food Inc. for 19 years, where she oversaw food safety programs across five manufacturing locations in the United States. She has also served as an independent advisor for food safety, quality and regulatory, and maintains an extensive list of professional affiliations and training certificates.
Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.