Champion Transparency Council aims for pet owner trust

Transparency is one of the latest hot topics in the pet food industry, and Champion Petfoods has gone all in with the formation of a new council called the Champion Transparency Council.

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Dr. Clayton Greenway, DVM, of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Andrea Coffman from Oklahoma; April Scott of the greater Toronto area; and Dr. Shawn Messonnier, DVM, from Plano, Texas are the four inaugural members of the Champion Transparency Council. (Courtesy Champion Petfoods)
Dr. Clayton Greenway, DVM, of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Andrea Coffman from Oklahoma; April Scott of the greater Toronto area; and Dr. Shawn Messonnier, DVM, from Plano, Texas are the four inaugural members of the Champion Transparency Council. (Courtesy Champion Petfoods)

Champion Petfoods has a vision of being “trusted by pet lovers everywhere,” and the company’s business model is built around that vision. So as transparency — at all levels — has become a larger concern of pet owners, Champion has leaned in hard with the founding of the Champion Transparency Council.

“This idea was born a couple of years ago,” said Don King, vice president of marketing for Champion. “Our industry faces a lot of scrutiny, and we believe that it would be well served by having manufacturers be open and honest about their products through the entire supply chain. We are proud of our foods, our suppliers and our making processes within our kitchens, and we have no problem sharing details of our approach with industry professionals and pet lovers so they can report what they have seen to interested parties.”

To that end, the Council was formed as a four-person committee of outside third-party experts and pet lovers — two veterinarians and two pet owners. The four are given access to each step of Champion’s product creation process and are encouraged to provide candid, periodic reports to the public on what they’ve learned.

The pet lover: getting the consumer’s perspective on transparency

Andrea Coffman is a dog owner from Oklahoma, USA, who became interested in joining the Council as a result of personal experiences with her dog’s diet. Her dog began displaying seizure activity at one year old, and no one could provide answers, so Coffman turned to nutrition as a last resort. She switched her dog to Champion food with excellent results, something she said showed her the importance and power of a quality pet food diet.

“It’s something I’ve become so passionate about, and my hope is that being a pet owner on the Council I’ll be able to share that importance in a genuine, relatable way that really bridges the gap between consumers and the pet food industry, because I don’t think it feels very accessible to many consumers,” said Coffman. “I think the creation of the transparency council is a first in the pet food industry, and I certainly hope it’s just the beginning of a massive shift towards transparency becoming the norm rather than the anomaly.

“We want to start change, and if we can lead more pet lovers to demanding, on an industry-wide level, the same transparency Champion is providing, then the hope is that we’ll see a shift across the entire pet food industry, that pet owners can know and have faith in what they’re feeding their animals,” she said.

According to Coffman, being on the Council and experiencing transparency straight from the source has been insightful in a way simple marketing or branding messages could never be. She said she has gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Champion’s mission to provide “biologically appropriate” pet foods by seeing that the company practices what it preaches from the suppliers they work with to the bags the food is packaged in. Meeting the suppliers in particular has been a highlight for Coffman.

“I’ve been so impressed with the suppliers,” she said. “Their dedication and their passion are amazing. You know the minute you set foot in their field, their boat, their barn, they clearly all love what they do; they pour their hearts into their work and each individual supplier’s knowledge base has been incredibly deep. That passion, that knowledge inherently breeds the desire for transparency from them. They want to show off their product and practices because they are things they’re rightfully proud of.”

And overall, the more Coffman said she learns, the more interested she is in learning more.

“The more I’ve learned, the more I dive into this, the more I want to know,” she said. “It has completely shifted my mindset in how I see not only the food I feed my dog, but the industry as a whole.”

The veterinarian: a professional take on pet food industry transparency

Dr. Shawn Messonnier, DVM, is a veterinarian, expert and author of numerous books including the “Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats.” He founded and practices at the Paws & Claws Animal Hospital in Plano, Texas, and was very interested in joining the Council.

“I joined because I thought it was a unique idea to actually open up the doors and take a behind-the-scenes look for the public into what really goes into making pet food,” said Messonnier. “We can give a very objective view about what’s really going on behind the scenes. It’s one thing for a company to say ‘we do x, y, z;’ it’s another thing for independent parties, especially those who have some knowledge of the pet food industry, to come in and verify that what they’re saying is truthful.”

Like Coffman, Messonnier said he has been impressed with the depth and breadth of transparency offered by Champion and enjoyed meeting some of the company’s ingredient suppliers to see where the source materials really come from.

“On the [Council’s] most recent trip we met some additional partners who provide some of the ingredients for the pet foods made, and I really was just impressed with how much these people really are partners with Champion, and they really want to work together to provide a very good product,” he said. “Champion is really trying to form partnerships with local farmers to provide high-quality ingredients, which provides income support for the farms so they have a market and provides Champion with the ingredients they need to make their foods.”

For Messonnier, it’s important to be a voice for the veterinarians and take as much information back to them as possible so that they, in turn, can help their clients. In addition, knowledge provides a call to action.

“I would like to work with [Champion] to help continue to get the word out to pet owners and the industry, and especially to my veterinary colleagues, about these brands of food that Champion makes,” he said. “If you’re a pet owner or veterinarian or retail partner, challenge other pet food companies. What’s really going on with their company? Why can’t we go behind the scenes and learn from you as we have from Champion?”

What the industry can learn from the Champion Transparency Council

Those involved in the Council — from Champion employees to the independent members — say there is no marketing ploy and no deception at play here. In fact, the unanimous hope seems to be that every pet food company will adopt the idea for themselves.

“We would love to see more manufacturers follow our lead in this regard,” said King. “Pet lovers are only going to demand more reassurance about the ingredients and processes used to make the food that fuels their dogs and cats. The sooner the entire industry becomes more transparent, the better.”

Coffman said consumers are definitely becoming more discerning.

“Champion’s council is a call to action, and I want to see that transparency spread like wildfire,” she said. “I want it to breed growth, to expose fraud and to pave the way for a new standard of acceptable business practices in the pet food industry. Just from a consumer standpoint, people are starting to open their eyes and discover the truth, and we’re really beginning to see a shift in consumer mindset. They’re no longer letting profit-driven marketing tactics make their decisions for them, and more and more pet lovers are rightfully demanding the clarity that they and their pets deserve.”

And from a veterinarian’s point of view, an educated pet owner is a better pet owner.

“I think any time a manufacturer of pet food can have independent folks going in, learning, asking questions, being shown evidence behind statements, it’s good for pet owners everywhere to really know what’s going on behind the scenes and be able to compare apples to apples and not just go by statements made by a PR firm that’s representing a company,” said Messonnier.

Finally, it boils down to trust — the trust pet owners have in the companies providing their pets’ food, and the desire to build that trust among manufacturers, retailers and customers.

“If each pet food company is who they want the public to believe they are — trustworthy, quality focused, with pets’ best interests in mind — they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from increasing transparency,” said Coffman. “I think these are really the ideals that are slowly leading us into a new era of pet food, where companies are held accountable for their products and their practices, where the health of pets everywhere take top priority, and where transparency and trust are customary.”

Read the companion article, "Transparency a complicated issue for the pet food industry,” published in the November 2019 issue of Petfood Industry magazine.

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