After being in the business for 87 years, this family-owned Texas manufacturer recently added freeze-drying capabilities to drive a nutritional philosophy of high-meat, low-carb pet diets.
Photo by Michael J. Madsen
Image owned by Sosland Publishing Company
After 87 years, Muenster Milling, Muenster, Texas, is still adapting to new market opportunities. Fourth-generation owners and brothers Mitch Felderhoff, president, and Chad Felderhoff, director of operations, purchased the business from their father in 2013.
Pet Food Processing visited Muenster in May 2019 and toured the company’s operations.
Fourth-generation owners and brothers Mitch Felderhoff, president, and Chad Felderhoff, director of operations, purchased the business from their father in 2013 and last fall added a new, 17,000-sq.-ft. freeze-dry processing facility. The addition of freeze-dried products fits with the owners’ pet nutrition philosophy as well as their focus on growth. For the freeze-dried diets, Muenster is targeting as close to zero carbohydrates as possible, especially for the cat formulas.
According to Mitch, kibble has come about as far as it can go. There is only so much fat — a maximum of around 20% — that can be added to a kibble and there is only so much protein that a kibble formula can contain before calcium becomes an issue. In freeze-dried diets that include low ash meats and high-fat products, the fats and proteins can be increased without the calcium levels being too high.
The Muenster brands of natural pet foods include Ancient Grains, Grain Free and Perfect Balance dry dog foods and freeze-dried dog treats along with freeze-dried meal toppers and complete-and-balanced freeze-dried pet foods for both dogs and cats.
Trays of Individually Quick-Frozen (IQF) products go into rolling carts and the carts fill the freeze dryer. Chad says freeze-drying up to 2,500 lbs. of meat at one time sounds fairly straight forward but it’s more challenging than they anticipated. Each batch requires problem solving and some trial and error to build out the product profiles.
Mitch says there was a lot of trial and error at first. “It turns into an art form really quickly,” Mitch explains. “Weird things happen in a vacuum.”
Each cycle of the system can accommodate 2,000 to 2,500 lbs. depending on the product mix and will yield 28 to 32% of that weight in freeze-dried product. Items can overlap slightly on the trays but it’s key that all product has some contact with the metal surface. Including the three hours it takes the system to fully defrost, the entire freeze-drying process typically takes 18 to 24 hours.
The meat is sourced from US Department of Agriculture (USDA) facilities nearby where it is blended and formed to Muenster’s specifications before being blast frozen and delivered to Muenster. Once received, the frozen products are spread onto metal trays. The trays go into carts and up to 10 carts go into the freeze dryer.
A vacuum is pulled on the chamber and the temperature inside lowers. After the target low temperature is reached, the shelves in the carts are gradually heated. As the trays warm up, the product goes through a sublimation process where the water goes straight from a solid form of ice to a vapor and the vapor collects on the cooling plates.
Muenster ensures the safety of the freeze-dried products in one of three ways: either the incoming meat is high pressure pasteurized before arriving at the freeze-dry facility; product reaches a high enough temperature during freeze-drying to be an effective “kill step;” or finished product is sent out for cold pasteurization after processing.
Once product exits the freeze dryer, it’s tested for both moisture and water activity and then held for a minimum of 48 hours for third-party quality testing before it is ready to package. Once packaged, freeze-dried products have a shelf life of 18 to 24 months.
Muenster currently produces round and square patties, meatballs and diced whole-muscle products. The company strives to source all natural ingredients with the exception of vitamins and minerals. The beef meatballs are a blend of beef and beef parts and the chicken meatballs are ground chicken breast. Blended diets include the necessary ingredients to meet complete-and-balanced requirements.
Muenster plans to offer more product types such as beef tripe and duck hearts. Currently, the company has one freeze-dry system and expects to add two more by the end of the year. The new facility has room for up to eight.
An additional business line for Muenster is specifically designed to bring private label to the independent retailer. My Custom Pet Store produces custom pet food for individual stores. The minimum volume for an order is 600 lbs. per SKU.
“We don’t want to ship the Muenster brand all over the country. We can’t support that, but we can make food for a group of stores in a particular location,” Mitch says.
Muenster has designed packaging with a complementary aesthetic and has the ability to print die-cut labels in house that seamlessly blend into the package design and customize the product for each private label customer.
With the addition of the freeze-drying facility, Muenster currently employs 48 people across three campuses: the new facility for freeze drying and small packaging, the original mill location that now produces extruded pet food and feed, and a 10-acre campus with two warehouses and a 400,000 bushel grain elevator.
The mill and extrusion plant are ruminant free because the company produces horse feed. On the dry side, about 50% of production is pet food and 50% is equine. Muenster produces a small amount of dry cat food, but that will be phased out to focus on freeze-dried food for cats instead. Including both dry-food and freeze-dried processing, the company’s production is approximately 30% Muenster brand and 70% co-manufacturing or private label.
The company has been growing an average of 12% per year with a few recent years of 25 to 30% growth. Mitch and Chad plan to continue growing the company by adding new capabilities and additional capacity over the next few years. After adding six to eight more freeze-dry systems, they plan to offer kibble mixed with freeze-dried products. They also plan on expanding their dry food capacity by building a new extrusion facility and adding a second extrusion line.