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How we created Canada's first ethically sourced pet food

After adopting my first dog Bella and seeing a market need for better quality pet outerwear, I launched Canada Pooch. Over the last four years, we have grown from a start-up run out of my apartment to the Canadian leader in the pet accessories category, with distribution in three continents.

My time working in the pet industry changed me in many ways – I became a vegetarian and my commitment to animal welfare deepened. I also began to contemplate the food I was feeding my dogs, questioning the disconnect between loving our pets and feeding them factory farmed meat.

This transformation gave way to a desire to change the standards for farm animal welfare in the pet industry. Along with my husband Isaac and brother-in-law Derek, we created Open Farm, the first ethically raised and sourced pet food. Our goal is to drive positive change in the pet industry with respect to farm animal welfare and sustainability, while creating much cleaner and higher quality food for pets.

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A critical part of building an ethically driven food was to provide complete transparency and accountability to pet owners so they could better understand where their pet's food is coming from. We knew that in order to do that, we needed to work with independent, industry-leading partners to audit and certify our supply chain. To date, our partners include Humane Farm Animal Care, Ocean Wise and Terracycle.

Choosing a certification In order to find the right partner, we needed to get our hands dirty to understand the real scope and impact of the certifications. How do the standards on paper translate into the day-to-day care of the farm animals? That meant reviewing each and every standard, visiting the farms to see the everyday lives and conditions of the farm animals, and speaking with the farmers who raise those animals.

There are pros and cons to every program, and we needed to be clear on our priorities to determine which certification was the right fit. When it came down to it, our top priority was the welfare of the farm animals.

Our goal is to drive demand for humanely farmed meat and move as many farm animals as possible to a humane system of meat production. We needed a partner that put the farm animals first, and had a high level of expertise and oversight in the field.

For this reason we chose to partner with Humane Farm Animal Care, the organization responsible for the Certified Humane label. HFAC's standards are extensive, cover the entire life of the animal, and were developed by industry leading vets and animal scientists to provide farm animals with space, a healthy diet, gentle handling, and the ability to engage in their natural behaviours.

Qualifying for a certification Qualifying for our top tier certifications has been a challenging process. As the first Certified Humane pet food, we had to build an entirely new and proprietary supply chain within the pet industry. Our farms were unaccustomed to shipping their meat for pet food since their primary customers are premium natural food stores. Similarly, prospective pet food manufacturers were unaccustomed to receiving and processing meat ingredients with our stringent standards. Every farm and manufacturing facility would also be subject to ongoing audits by the HFAC program.

We were pre-launch at that point and could not commit to minimum volumes, and our partners would need to change their processes to meet our certification standards. So why would these farms and manufacturers agree to work with us? We had to choose the right partners, but also convince them that our partnership was worth their time, effort and capital investment. We had to somehow make them believe in our vision, and feel confident that we would one day become a meaningful customer.

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In addition to the challenge of onboarding partners, we were also faced with limitations on our ingredients. Chicken fat and chicken meal, for example, are widely used as a concentrated source of protein in pet foods and to make them taste better. Due to the inherent lack of traceability and quality of these ingredients, they were off the table for us. We had to look for alternatives, and ended up sourcing much higher quality ingredients such as coconut oil, and ocean-caught whitefish meal.

Integrating a certification By certifying part of our supply chain, we set a quality expectation for our business. We cannot have exceptional quality in one area, and low or no standards in another. We wanted to hold our fish and vegetable sourcing, as well as our packaging, to an elevated standard.

Again we looked for the right partners. Open Farm is the first pet food partner of Ocean Wise, the Canadian leader in sustainable fishing. This partnership helps us ensure that all aspects of our ocean-caught fish program are in accordance with the most current sustainability guidelines. Similarly, knowing that 95 per cent of dog food bags were non-recyclable, we partnered with Terracycle to launch the first nationwide pet food bag recycling program.

Maintaining a certification The key to maintaining our certification is staying true to the values that drove us to apply for the certifications in the first place, such as working with family farms that respect their animals and continually trying to reduce our environmental impact. We know that basing our decisions on these values leads to higher quality ingredients and ultimately a better food for our pets.

Jacqueline Prehogan is the founder and president of Canada Pooch, a producer of pet outerwear and accessories.

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