Canadian pet food producer Champion Petfoods recently opened its new 371,100-sq.-ft. DogStar Kitchens located on 85 acres of land outside of Bowling Green, KY. Once full steam, Champion will produce 220 million pounds annually of freeze-dried and kibble pet food under the name of its Acana and Orijen brands.

“The US is our fastest growing market,” says Frank Burdzy, president and CEO of Champion Petfoods, which prompted the company’s first pet food operation to be located in this country. Two years ago, when the site selection process began, the location was narrowed down to eight states. “Kentucky stood out because early in the process the governor himself reached out to us.”

The greenfield site is designed to blend into the country landscape, abandoning an industrial appearance, with very little equipment or tanks visible from the outside. Only 30 acres of the property is devoted to operations, and the remaining land is undisturbed, dotted with walking paths and pet exercise spaces. During the 14-month design and construction period, many of the locals erroneously thought a new school was being built.

Although the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was still being finalized during construction, the company wanted to design and build its DogStar Kitchens based not only upon the new requirements, but also to the European Union’s standards. This is notable upon entry, with the hygiene and sanitation areas meticulously designed and built just as they would be in a human food processing plant. Zone controls are employed, with separation of raw and processed foods using a number of methods, including insulated metal panels and color coding of equipment only to be used in corresponding areas. A boots program is enforced, with cleaners placed at the production floor’s entry point.

Gray Construction was responsible for the build and worked to connect the enterprise by developing a customized supervisory process called the WINK (Window into the Kitchen). This system allows the product to be controlled while collecting data in an automated capacity. All production lines are monitored by video, and the cooking processes are connected through Allen-Bradley hardware and software systems displayed in real time in the control center.

In the dry processing area, all ingredients are pneumatically controlled using six bulk totes and a micro-dosing system that can adjust measurements down to the teaspoon. When bulk ingredients arrive, they are weighed outside and tracked and traced throughout the cooking process. All ingredients are connected to the supplier to allow “Farm to Fido” traceability. In the mixing system, 30 bulk bins are suspended, with cabinets insulated to avoid cross-contamination as well as to keep the noise to a minimum. 

Champion Petfoods is committed to using fresh and local ingredients as stated in its BAFRINO mission, which stands for Biologically Appropriate, Fresh Regional Ingredients, Never Outsourced. Dave Pashley, vice president of operations, says the company works with regional botanical growers and meat and poultry producers for their supply needs. To accommodate the inclusion of fresh ingredients, a 25,000-sq.-ft. refrigerator was installed and can hold 600,000 pounds of meat, fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables and botanicals. Additionally, the commercial food grinder and plate freezers allow for quick preservation of fresh ingredients.

To manage moisture during the fresh meat inclusion, three stages of drying are used. The first is a custom-designed conveyor built with a proprietary hood system to initially draw out the moisture. Next, a pre-drying system removes more of the moisture and pneumatically moves the kibble to the final stage, which is a three-pass drying system that gently turns food over twice.

Other key equipment includes votator heat exchangers, which bring the chilled, fresh ingredients to room temperature without adding water or steam. High-intensity preconditioners introduce fresh meats from the votator to the thermal twin extruder. This extruder is the first of its kind in North American and features steam injection for a gentle cooking process to reduce the carbohydrates in the food produced.

Over 300 workers were onsite during peak construction. During the early stages of the development, Gray provided Champion with virtual reality technology to create an immersive experience and clearly demonstrate how DogStar would look and feel. Stephen Gray, president and CEO of Gray, says the design and building of this project was a true team experience.

“Champion is built around trust,” he says. “They really mean it, and we were lucky to be a part of this project.” 

For more information: Gray Construction, 859-281-5000,