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Safety concerns driving Fresno pet treat maker’s success

Maker of Plato Pet Treats has doubled in size

Fresno company KDR, which makes organic, grain-free treats under the name Plato Pet Treats, has doubled the size of its operation.
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Fresno company KDR, which makes organic, grain-free treats under the name Plato Pet Treats, has doubled the size of its operation.

Fresno dog treat maker KDR is growing by leaps and bounds.

The factory that makes Plato Pet Treats has doubled in size and more than doubled its workforce since moving to California three years ago.

One main driver of the growth: concern for Fido’s health.

The pet treat industry has been rocked in recent years by recalls and reports of dog illnesses and deaths, mostly linked to pet treats made in China.

Plato Pet Treats, made in a factory near Maple and Jensen avenues in southeast Fresno, has never had a recall. The company is increasingly touting its safety record and meeting demand from dog owners looking for safe, American-made treats.

Plato Pet Treats also fall into the broader trend of consumers wanting their dogs’ food to be just as healthy as their own – and that means treats that are organic, natural, grain-free or full of nutrients like omega-3s.

Plato Pet Treats high-end treats are sold on Amazon.com, and locally at Pet Extreme stores, Whitie’s Pets and Kelley’s Pets. The best seller, a 1-pound bag of organic chicken treats made with organic brown rice, sells for $15 to $16. Others, like the “Eos” line, are grain-free, and the “Thinkers” sticks tout DHA that helps support brain function.

3/4of ingredients for Plato’s Pet Treats come from California

The company moved to Fresno from Indiana in 2012 to be closer to suppliers, family, affordable factory space and a workforce.

Since then, KDR has flourished.

“We are on track to this year to do more than three times what we did in 2012,” said CEO Aaron Merrell.

The factory took over the cotton storage warehouse next door, doubling in size to 60,000 square feet. When it moved here it had nearly 20 employees. Now it about 60.

A more than $2 million investment in operations has paid for more meat dehydrators and other equipment that allows them to boost production.

Consumers looking for safe, healthy treats have driven most of that growth, Merrell says. They don’t seem to mind that Plato Pet Treats cost more than many others.

“People are now realizing they need to pay more for a quality product,” he says. “We’ve been doing what we’ve always been doing, but we’re doing a better job of letting people know about it and that’s been driving our success.”

The search for safe dog treats stems from complaints that jerky treats and chews made dogs sick or killed them – with nearly all the treats in question coming from China.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in February that it still is investigating about 5,800 complaints of illness in dogs – including 1,000 deaths – associated with chicken, duck or sweet potato jerky treats.

That obviously had dog owners on edge, said Shannon Brown, an analyst at market research company Packaged Facts.

Their June survey found that 61 percent of dog owners actively seek out pet foods made in the U.S.

“Once all those recalls came into play, people just started paying more and more attention,” she said. “(It’s) basically a wake-up call to consumers that just a little pet treat definitely has big implications for their pets.”

That’s why when Merrell of Plato Pet Treats gives tours, food safety is the thing he touts the most.

About three-quarters of ingredients come from California, including some from Pitman Farms in Sanger and Valley-based Foster Farms. Tomato meal comes from a farmer in McFarland.

I can look you in the eye and tell you I know the farmer that grows our sweet potatoes.

Aaron Merrell, CEO of KDR

Merrell dips his hands into dehydrated peas and carrots that are edible for humans and also used in soup stocks, he said.

The factory is separated into two sides, with the food-making operation accessible only to employees who walk through a decontaminating boot wash and wear hair nets, smocks and goggles.

Meat, other ingredients and the finished product are tested for pathogens by four people working in quality control. More testing is done by outside agencies, too.

Two metal detectors, including one that can detect metal as small as 1.8 millimeters – far tinier than a BB – ensure no metal ends up in treats.

The company already meets the standards of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a 2011 law still being rolled out that holds pet food to the same standards as human food.

More certifications allow the company to sell in the European Union, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel and Mexico. Approval to sell in New Zealand and Australia is coming next and will allow the company to grow even more.

All this growth inspires new types of treats, too, like Hundur’s Crunch, a treat that is layers of cod and golden redfish skin.

“In the next year, we’re going to have a lot of new products hitting the market,” he said.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough

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