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  • Writer's pictureNoelle Liberman

Interview: California Dog Kitchen

Updated: 20 hours ago

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ilya Altshteyn, co-founder of California Dog Kitchen, a company making fresh food for dogs based in Southern California. You can read through the full interview transcript here.



Inspired by watching how freshly cooked food transformed their rescue dog's health, Ilya and his brother Sasha set out to fill a gap they saw in the commercial fresh food space.

We figured out what we wanted to see from a gently cooked food brand and tried to do that. We focused on what we wanted to update compared to what we saw existing out there already, such as more usable and better packaging options.

COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING


One key focus point for California Dog Kitchen was on packaging sustainability. Ilya explained, "Everything is in plastic no matter what because it's either super expensive to do or it's just not out there." It took a few years to really dial in the packaging. Initially, they started with round ice cream-style containers. But those took a long time to defrost and weren't efficient to store. Eventually they settled on their current packaging using small rectangular bamboo tubs and the paper bags for their cubes, both of which are compostable.


The reason we did compostable and not recyclable is because recyclable is a little bit complicated when you have food waste on it. When there's fat on the container, people have to wash it properly to recycle it. When we had these other containers, they were recyclable. But we realized that people weren't going to rinse them. And even if they did, it wasn't clear that they would rinse enough of the fats off to not contaminate the recycling stream. Usually food containers with scraps on them will get filtered out before the recycling actually happens.

Having navigated the world of packaging for frozen pet food, I know how challenging it is to find environmentally-friendly options that protect the integrity of the food. I was amazed to learn not only of the compostable containers, but that the bags themselves were compostable! Ilya explained, "[the bag] has three layers. One of them is this outer paper layer that you can see on the outside. Then another is this foil-looking layer, but it's actually more like a paper. It just happens to be a little bit reflective and it's totally plant-based. And then the inner layer is plant based plastic. If you put it into an industrial composting environment, it will break down into healthy soil without microplastics within 180 days."


The paper tubs are made of the same material and can break down in a counter top composting machine in four hours. Ilya had recently shared a video of the process on the company's Instagram account:




GIVING BACK & DOING GOOD


Compostable packaging isn't the only way that California Dog Kitchen is working to make the world a better place. In addition to being members of 1% for the Planet and donating to animal and environmental non-profits, they are also members of the Good Food Guild. I wasn't familiar with the Good Food Guild and asked Ilya to explain.

[The Good Food Guild] is something like a cooperative or club for human food. Portland Pet Food Company is the other pet food company that's in it. Basically to join, they check that your sourcing complies with their standards. Those standards are all about sourcing either organic or the highest quality ingredients for whatever products you're making. They promote slow food and sustainability in the food production space.

One of the biggest challenges for consumers is having good tools for discernment among brands. It is unfortunately very easy to lie and misrepresent within the pet food space. Susan Thixton, an advocate for truth and transparency within pet food, compiles a list each year of brands she has vetted and endorses. California Dog Kitchen was honored to be included in the most recent list. In a landscape with very few tools for discernment, Susan's list is a great place for pet parents to start. But it is important to understand that even useful tools such as Susan's list have limits. It's not as though every invoice for every raw material purchased is verified--ultimately there is no dog food police (even the FDA generally only gets involved when problems arise).


Before shifting into pet food, Ilya worked in data science and sustainability. This work gave him an interesting perspective on transparency in supply chains. The pet food industry isn't the only one that suffers from obfuscation and poor practices. The sustainability company that he worked for was a non-profit in the coffee industry that verified claims and practices across supply chains. He explains:

Coffee works in this very interesting way where there's 12 million coffee farmers in the world. And then the big coffee companies buy from all these small farmers, but they don't have any direct contact with the farmers because there's a million middlemen. So a company like Nescafe has no idea if there's slave labor going on at the end of their supply chain, or if there's banned pesticide use, or any kind of child or unfair labor practice of any sort (or any of these other sustainability issues). We were the company that would investigate. And it's very, very hard to do properly.

Just like in the coffee world, sourcing is everything when it comes to pet food. It is the perpetual challenge for most companies out there right now. When it comes to premium ingredients, particularly proteins, there is only so much of the highest quality being produced. The hope is that as more customers create demand for products like humanely raised and harvested meats that more suppliers service that need. However, humane farming practices are not the most efficient, which is why we have so much factory farming and terrible conditions for animals raised for meat in the first place.


SOURCING & PRODUCTS


I spoke with Ilya at length about the sourcing that goes into the California Dog Kitchen products. Their website also has a lot of great resources about their sourcing. First and foremost, all of their ingredients are 100% human grade. This means that any of the ingredients used could otherwise be sold at a grocery store or to a restaurant. Additionally, all of the meats sourced for their products must be preservative free. When it comes to produce, California Dog Kitchen is working toward 100% organic. On their website, they explain that non-organic produce can be sprayed with carcinogenic pesticides that can end up in the finished product.

When it comes to produce, conventional doesn't cut it. We've switched all of our produce to organic except blueberries and apples. We cannot find a reasonably priced organic source for those right now. But the long term plan is to make those organic, too. All the rest of our produce is organic now, including our grains.

Currently, California Dog Kitchen features two main lines of food. The key distinguisher between the two lines is the proteins and how they are sourced. The lower priced options utilize conventionally-raised proteins but are still human-grade and preservative free. These include Chicken & Rice, Beef & Quinoa, and Grain-Free Turkey.



The second line Ilya calls their "Wild and Organic" line. These proteins are either certified organic or come from wild-harvested proteins.

In that [line], we have the venison recipe which comes from Broken Arrow Ranch. They're the ones... actually hunting deer and carving them up in a field trailer. They're definitely our coolest sourcing story.


California Dog Kitchen's blog features a great article about Broken Arrow Ranch and why sourcing wild proteins is great for both pet nutrition and the environment. In addition to the wild-harvested venison, the Wild and Organic line also features a wild-caught fish option comprised of pollock and salmon skin. This formula is also grain-free, making it a wonderful choice for pets with allergies. Fish-only formulas can be difficult to find, particularly in raw and fresh diets.

The third formula rounding out the line is the USDA certified Organic Chicken formula sourced from Mary's Chicken, based nearby in Southern California. Not only is Mary's Chicken organic, but it's also GAP-rated at Step 3 which is a certified humane rating that ensures the chickens have access to the outdoors with ample water and shade.



The cool thing about organic chicken is that it's actually the entire recipe that is certified organic. The USDA actually monitors our purchases. They look through our purchasing logs. So they do the thing that Susan Thixton can't do. And we pay them to do it, unfortunately, but that's just how it works.

PRODUCTION

I've found through my experience in the pet food industry that there is often lack of clarity around what governing bodies are in charge of pet food production. The short answer is that the FDA governs pet food, while the USDA governs human food (the long answer will be its own post in the weeks to come). There is an interesting overlap when it comes to organic certifications. As Ilya references above, when a product is organic, that certification is managed by the USDA who can visit and inspect facilities and paperwork. Other than to verify organic certifications (and some optional inspections pertaining to human grade pet food manufacturing), the USDA generally does not inspect or administrate any pet food production as it is otherwise outside their jurisdiction. A USDA inspector would only be in a pet food facility if that facility also produced food for people, and only that food would be subject to their inspections.


However, having to deal with the USDA and their regular inspections at all can help elevate the operating practices of pet food producers.

When a USDA organic inspector comes in, they don't care that we follow USDA human food production rules unless there are obvious infringements. They do care that we follow the USDA organic program rules. They check that we're buying organic for our organic recipe. They check that we're storing it properly such that they can't get mixed up with non-organic stuff, that we use chemicals that are organic compliant for cleaning and for other stuff. We actually just adopted all of the organic standards for everything in our production. We just use those organic compliant chemicals for everything.

In production, it is far simpler to have one process for everything. For California Dog Kitchen, they're utilizing best in class practices as their standard operating procedure. It's actually quite rare for a brand to be the manufacturer of the product; co-packing is a very common practice in the pet industry. As the manufacturer, you get to have the utmost control over quality. As a pet parent, using products that are sold by the people who make them gives you greater accountability with the brand you're trusting to keep your pets healthy. The more layers that exist between the end user and the origin of a product, the harder it is for that customer to get clear, accurate information and support.


For Ilya and Sasha, there's been a lot to learn as they've grown into becoming pet food manufacturers. Just last year the brothers upgraded to their current space, a proper dog food production facility. Prior to taking it over, the space was actually a human-food facility that produced frozen pizza. When I asked Ilya how it felt growing into such a large space, he replied:

It's a little scary because we don't come from a food processing background... We had to make a lot of things up, work with consultants to understand better how to do stuff, and learn a lot... And we're so much better at it than we were. I'm hoping in a year I can say that again.

After speaking with Ilya, it's clear he, his brother, and everyone at California Dog Kitchen, are on a path to excellence through continuous improvement. From sourcing, to packaging and beyond, they are pushing the envelope in the industry and setting an example for others to follow.


Many thanks to you, reader, for coming along on this journey. And many thanks to Ilya for taking the time to speak with me.








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