By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Almost two years to the day after flipping the switch on a half million dollar piece of equipment that was to solve Champion Petfoods odour problems, the Morinville manufacturer opened their doors for three kitchen tours Wednesday, giving residents an opportunity to see the progress first hand. The tours were an opportunity for Morinvillians to not only see the company is serious about reducing the smell it releases into the air, but also an opportunity to get an inside look at how the product is made and to learn about the job opportunities available with the company.
Although the public open house was a first for the pet food manufacturer, the company did allow a class of students from Notre Dame to tour the facility in the spring of 2010 in response to a story the class had written about the smelly factory in their town.
Much has changed at Champion since that visit as the company has slowly (too slowly for some) transitioned from a feed lot operation to a commercial kitchen. No longer does the operation look like a large, dark warehouse with some machinery stuck here and there throughout the facility. The plant now is compartmentalized into clearly defined packaging, warehousing and manufacturing areas, each properly sealed from one another to reduce dust, control temperature, and control the movement of odours.
Throughout the facility are found hand wash basins, dryers, devices to decontaminate footwear, and the ever-present white lab coats, hair nets and plastic gloves one would find in a factory that makes food for humans.
It was the cleanliness of the facility that particularly struck a chord with Servus Credit Union Manager Kym Moore, one of the local business people to visit the plant Wednesday. “Being the first time touring the plant and the facilities, I was impressed with the sterile environment,” Moore said. “Having toured the Maple Leaf plant in Manitoba, it’s very similar to that.”
Moore’s co-worker Monica French said she was impressed with the amount of quality control at the Morinville plant. “In Canada, I didn’t realize there is no quality control for pet foods,” she said. “Yet, they have taken on the task of doing quality control for the products that they do ship in Canada. I’m very impressed with the plant.”
With respect to the company’s odour mitigation, French said she has noticed an on-going reduction in the odours coming out of the plant. “When I first came to Morinville a year ago, it has improved since then,” French said.
Another resident to tour the plant Wednesday afternoon was Paul O’Dea, a man who has been vocal with Council in calling on them to keep Champion’s feet to the fire on odour mitigation. O’Dea said he felt the pant tour was well organized and the company’s personnel professional and accommodating.
“It was useful to see some of the infrastructure improvements first hand and to get a better sense of some of the initiatives that are being taken to transition the preparation areas to more of a commercial kitchen operation,” O’Dea said.
While impressed with what he saw inside the plant, it was his one-on-one discussions with Champion President and CEO Frank Burdzy that left him encouraged, particularly the news Champion was still focused on an odour mitigation target of five odour units per metre cubed, a substantial reduction from the 30 to 60 units collected in samplings last October.
“My sense is that Mr. Burdzy is sincere in his determination to build a solution for the odour problem,” O’Dea said. “I do believe that the efforts being undertaken since his arrival as CEO are much more comprehensive and are drawing on a deeper well of technical expertise than was previously the case. How effective these efforts will ultimately be remains to be smelled.”
Champion pleased with response
Burdzy said he was pleased with the response to the open house. Approximately 80 people took the first two tours of the day, and he anticipated the largest turnout would be Wednesday night. “It’s been lots of good questions and lots of people interested,” he said, adding the company had three major areas of focus to point out: the company’s award-winning pet food, employment opportunities with the company, and the odour management piece. “I’ve had lots of very insightful questions, good questions. I think the tours have been helpful to get a good view of what we are really doing here.”
The CEO said he was glad to be able to dispel some of the myths about the company by opening the company’s doors to the public. “A lot of people weren’t sure what kind of ingredients were going in,” Burdzy explained. “Some people were talking about rotting materials, and you can see going through there [the plant] it is as fresh as fresh can be.” The CEO said the plant tour also dispelled the myth the company uses chemicals in its manufacturing process. But the biggest myth Burdzy feels was shattered Wednesday was the notion nothing is being done inside the plant to mitigate cooking odours. “I think it was evident from our display here but also by looking at some of the changes we’ve made over the last year-and-a-half that it’s been a long time coming, but we have been making progress towards what is going to be a successful effort here in the next couple weeks.”
Air flow a key
Burdzy said changes people would have seen Wednesday included the walls erected in Kitchen 1 to seal off the packaging area. The infrastructure modification created positive pressure to push air out from the packaging area, while creating a negative pressure inside the production area, something he believes will help with the extraction of the steam out of the stacks. Another change, a little harder to see but no less important, has been changing the temperature control with the company’s drying process. “That was a big move for us – to bring our temperatures down,” he said. “That’s not visible, but I think people understand the concept very well.”
Final reductions are anticipated to occur once the company’s new high-tech steam stacks are installed and calibrated. The stacks are scheduled (weather permitting) to be erected Sunday. Calibration on the new units is to be completed by the end of June.