A warm evening in San Diego, the kind most folks use for tossing a ball to the family dog, found 24 pet owners squeezed into the bakery section of Whole Foods Market in La Jolla. Their backs to the cookies and coffee, they gazed expectantly at a young lecturer who came, super-hero-like, to save their dogs and cats from the poison in the pet food.
The news reports began in January-tales of Chinese companies upping the protein content of pet food by mixing in a plastic-derivative called melamine. By the time the lecture rolled around on Thursday, May 10, more than 100 brands of kibble had been recalled because of melamine contamination. After reports of pets dying from the adulterated food, the full-scale pet-owner panic began.
Najia Zarif, from Bay Ho, believes her dog contracted cancer from melamine, or from some other side effect of the kibble she fed him. Zarif has been cooking for her dog for the last month.
'Most commercial dog food is like a bowl of Count Chocula for dogs,'she said.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of San Diegans inundated their local Whole Foods with phone calls requesting advice. The management, or at least marketing guy Jason Gierson, knew that people were scared pooper-scooperless. The young woman Gierson selected for the lecture had been plucked from the nutrition department. She was a people-chef who 'used to have a dog.'She gamely did some research and tried to apply her knowledge of 'holistic nutrition'to create recipes that would be edible for both pets and their owners. Her presentation, 'Merging the Gap between your diet and your pets,'involved reading from her handout and then discussing the pets-and-people recipes she had devised.
Point Loma resident Linda Patterson has been prepping meals for her six dogs since the 1980s. She rescues them from Latin American countries and somehow gets them back to San Diego. She has spent thousands of dollars on their care-including surgery to extract an oxtail from the colon of one-and she has pet insurance for all of them. The one animal that is not insured, her cat, rang up $7,000 in medical bills in the last six months. Patterson does not mess around with standard commercial kibble. She visits Whole Foods regularly to buy chicken and turkey for the animals, and then she goes home to make them meals. With all the animals in her house, she and her boyfriend, Greg Jones, cannot travel together. Who would stay with the dogs?
She knew a problem when she saw one, and these Whole Foods recipes were problems. The first, a 'beef pot roast for my dog and I,'aside from being grammatically incorrect, called for two pounds of chunk roast, some vegetables and one whole yellow onion. The other, 'poached salmon for your kitty'combined six ounces of salmon with a clove of garlic.
'You can't feed them onions or garlic,'Patterson told CityBeat.
Experts seem to agree.
'I find these recipes very concerning,'said Dr. Sean Delaney, a UC Davis researcher and board-certified animal nutritionist and veterinarian. 'I would not feed these to my pets.'
As the lecture ended, many audience members felt they had no more answers than when they began.
'Are onions and garlic good or bad? What meat do I buy?'a confused dog owner, Lora Barkley, said to CityBeat. 'I want to get all this mixed information cleared up.”
The pet-food crisis has spawned uncountable websites, many of which are earnest but ill-informed, Delaney said. Books published on home-cooking pet food often focus on special treats rather than everyday balanced meals. Barkley could ask her veterinarian, but vets do not, in general, get a lot of training in animal nutrition, and many fall back on high-end commercial kibble as a solution to nutritional problems.
Dr. Keith Weingardt, a holistic veterinarian, learned about animal nutrition through years of experience. He says to keep an eye out for holistic vets who focus on the whole animal, rather than just medical problems. Also, UC Davis has a nutrition center that can offer useful advice. Weingardt's experience has made him an advocate for home-prepared meals.
'The money you spend on feeding them right is the money you save in the long term on vet bills,'he said.
But the primary undercurrent at the lecture wasn't even one of fear for pets so much as it was the sense that the audience had lost track of where the food they fed their pets came from.
'I've started reading labels. I've been buying more human-grade food,'Barkley said. 'I'm taking control.'