I asked Amy for an interview after seeing her company's pet food featured in Susan Thixton's The List on Truth about Pet Food.
Thank you, Amy, for doing this interview with me.
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Big Bear Pet Company offers the highest nutrition, safety, and freshness to cats and dogs. Our company embodies quality, integrity and passion in creating foods for our four-legged friends. Having been in this industry long enough to see some really big changes that don’t necessarily benefit our animals, it still gives me great satisfaction to know I am producing a healthy, safe food option.
What made you want to start Big Bear?
Big Bear is the third pet food business I have started. I entered in the industry 20 years ago with a pet bakery focused on horse and dog treats.
I had the opportunity to buy a pet food delivery business. I was a retailer for several years until the bakery grew too large and felt I needed to change the focus on one thing. I formulated my first foods about 15 years ago when I saw the industry starting to change with big companies getting bigger and quality diminishing. I have re-invented myself several times with a bigger company trying to sue me over a trademark issue, to a bad business partner. I have continued the process to be able to produce a high quality food for pets. I originally wanted to go to vet school but after figuring out I am the worst combination of Dr Doolittle and Dr Harriott I decided that was not my path! I actually started in the industry by accident – I am a horsey girl and am a certified riding instructor and decided to bake horse treats for my clients as a Christmas gift and one thing led to another and I am no longer baking treats but after many years of have come to the product line up we have today.
KatManFood and Hoo-RAW! are your cat lines, correct? KatManFood is gently cooked whereas Hoo-RAW! is the raw food? How long have they been around?
Yes KatManFood and Hoo-RAW! are both cat food brands. Hoo-RAW is our raw food brand and was designed upon the chemical composition of a mouse. I copied the proportions of the organs in a mouse – with the exception of the heart. I added more heart meat so the Taurine levels were AAFCO minimum acceptable levels. Hoo-RAW has been around since 2011 when I started Big Bear Pet Company. KatManFood was really created after I adopted a senior kitty from the shelter. I created KatManFood as a transition food for cats wanting to go to a raw diet. As many people know cats can be soooooo tough to feed. The transition for many kitties from canned to raw is still too big a step so I created KatManFood which is whole food ingredients that are gently cooked then fresh frozen. The KatManFood is a great way to introduce a whole food smell to your cat while still having a texture similar to canned food. It is also a great option for owners that are still not comfortable with feeding raw, or for cats with health issues that raw food is not an option for them.
What is the big deal about manufacturing in USDA/FDA human food facilities to human food standards under inspection hours?
Will try not to write a small novel on this topic. I have a lot of years in the industry. I started as a retailer carrying super premium brands of pet food and manufacturing my own baked treats. As I grew and started looking into the possibilities of someone baking my treats I toured countless facilities. Horrifying doesn’t even cover what I have seen. As an animal science major in college I have also visited a rendering facility where they make the “meat meal” for many of the large pet food companies. Had no idea at the time how valuable that information would be. The big deal is the level of compliance I am subject to using a USDA/FDA human food facility – actually the level of compliance the facility is subject to. I researched my plants and found two facilities that were: one - willing to take on a small producer like me, but two - subject themselves to additional levels of testing and certification for cleanliness beyond what the USDA/FDA requires. The other “big deal” is that all ingredients that enter either of the plants I use must all be human edible and the meats must all have the USDA sticker or “bug” on them to come in the door. Because of that I am not required to use any denaturing agents on my meat products – no charcoal, no dyes, just meat. If a pet food uses a facility and does not operate under inspection hours they are required to “denature the meat” which means they must put some type of chemical marker on the meat so there is no way it could be confused with human food. My pet foods are not USDA inspected since the inspector works for that particular plant not for my company – but their job is to keep the plant in compliance with food in food out. The other new FDA requirement for my foods coming out of a USDA/FDA facility is that all raw foods must be tested for E Coli and Salmonella before leaving the facility. There is now a zero tolerance in raw pet foods which is why some of the bigger companies have gone to HPP on all raw foods.
What is HPP?
HPP stands for High Pressure Pasteurization. It is a process designed as a kill step for finished products. The finished product is subjected to a high pressure water process that will cause any bacterial cells that may be present in the food to rupture which would stop any further growth. Two problems with that for me – you still may have a high level of bacteria in your product, but because the cells were ruptured you can still legally sell it since it will not have any further growth; and every time I have asked the question of OK – meat protein is also made up of cells – what happens to the protein cells?? No one has been able to give me an answer. I just don’t feel confident there is enough long term data out there to support the idea that it does not harm.
Where are the ingredients in your products sourced? What country are they sourced from?
All our products are locally sourced with grass fed meats, with no added hormones or antibiotics. Again – we are extremely limited using USDA facilities with what is allowed.
Why would I want to choose a raw diet over wet food or dry food?
A raw diet is really how they were designed to eat. Cats of course are obligate carnivores – must have meat to survive – so a raw diet is an easy way to serve your cat a ‘healthy mouse or rabbit”! LOL Cats are also interesting in that they physically can not drink enough water to hydrate themselves if fed only dry food. Cats really do need to get their moisture from their diet and raw food and even canned food achieves that. The only down side to most canned foods is the quality of ingredients and the volume of synthetic vitamins and ingredients that go into them. Raw diets are really designed to get the nutrition from real food ingredients – easy to digest. Our gently cooked food is natural without the addition of a lot of synthetic ingredients.
Is it possible to sample your food?
We do have sample packs available online for our raw and cooked foods. The samples $18.99 which includes two 8oz tubs of whatever flavor of raw or cooked foods that you select and includes shipping. We usually pay for the 2Day shipping upgrade since it is hard to keep the food frozen in that small quantity.
How did you come up with your recipes for the cat food - in other words, how do you know they are well-balanced diets and for what ages of cats?
As I mentioned previously I found the chemical composition of a mouse and tried to copy that as best I could. I also fed panels of cats and used several different animal communicators to “interview” the crew and ask how they felt after that ate the food, what they did or did not like, and what they would change. Yeah – little far out there, but no one has really asked them what it is they want so I though I would! Our foods are not labeled complete and balanced because we have never subjected them to the full AAFCO testing process. Again – long time in the industry and worked for several veterinary clinics over the years. The AAFCO guidelines were put in place so many years ago and have NEVER been updated. They were created when kibble and canned food diets came into being so were never really designed for fresh food, which the body can digest and assimilate much more easily. In my mind it like comparing a fresh prepared steak and salad to a McDonald’s hamburger or hot dog– both meat, but certainly NOT the same quality or additives. What I do check – protein levels; fat content, Calcium:Phosphorus levels, Taurine levels and work to get the minimum acceptable levels of the fat soluble vitamins in the food. I am a huge advocate of not only rotating proteins in your cats diet – but rotate companies!! Yes – rotate companies!! We all do things a little differently and really in my mind the goal is not complete and balanced every single meal – I know I don’t eat like that! – but complete and balanced over time!!
I discovered Big Bear Pet while reading through The Truth About Pet Food's The List 2019. As far as I know, that's a pretty good list to be on. Do you know how you made it to the list?
Yes – it is a great list to be on. Susan Thixton is the pit bull of the pet world. She is a true consumer advocate – you can’t “pay to play” with her which I love. If you are not familiar with her work please check it out at www.truthaboutpetfood.com I actually made the list the first time in 2016 when a retailer reached out to me from the east coast and asked if I had a distributor out there and I replied “No, I choose to put my money in my product and ingredients, not in marketing and distribution at this point.” She told me she loved me on the phone and there was someone she was going to introduce me to and that was Susan. It is really hard to be a small company in this industry – most people do not understand the process and what it takes to produce food and how much money it takes to get it distributed on a larger scale. We are actually happy to remain a smaller company and produce a higher quality product. Susan sends out questions – tough questions every year to a lot of different companies and then puts together her list for consumers. I am very proud that Big Bear Pet Company has been selected for the List since 2016.