The beef over pet food

Bowser gets raw meat because wolves eat it in the wild. Tabby gets raw chicken because lions don't eat kibble. But vets say the recent trend of raw feeding is dangerous to pets and people.

Published January 19, 2006 11:32AM (EST)

On a recent winter afternoon in San Francisco's well-heeled Marina district, there's blood on the sidewalk.

Spilling out of the garage of a neat yellow house, dozens of cardboard boxes overflow with a smorgasbord of frozen raw meat and bones sealed in plastic bags. There's pork and beef from Niman Ranch, and whole quail from Cavendish Game Birds of Vermont. It looks like an upscale butcher has been pillaged by a modern-day Robin Hood, who left the spoils for the taking: lamb, chicken, goat, turkey, rabbit, buffalo -- a veritable Noah's Ark of high-quality protein plunder.

Straining at his leash, a golden retriever is overcome by lust, sniffing frantically at the inside of a box, drinking in the lingering scent of flesh and blood. Not to worry; this dog surely will get more than a nose-full later because the thousands of pounds of meaty carnage piled up here is all for dogs and cats.

It's monthly delivery day for San Francisco Raw Feeders, a buyers group with some 350 human members who strive to feed their animals a diet rich with raw meat -- and not just any meat, but sustainable, antibiotic- and steroid-free meat and bones from cows, pigs and poultry raised and slaughtered on small farms.

Joyce Chin is here to get chow for her eight greyhounds. She looks at the haul and stifles a laugh. "If my mother only knew the stuff that I feed my dogs, she would be horrified because a lot of this would go to feed people in China," she says. "People in America don't even eat a lot of these cuts."

That's true of the pork neck bones and feet, as well as the green tripe with trachea and gullet. Here's 5 pounds of beef hearts for $13.20, 12 pounds of beef livers for $25.80, and a 10-pound case of lamb breast bones for $20.

Tina Maria van der Horst, a tall blonde wearing a blue fleece jacket and jeans, is loading up her trunk with Niman Ranch pork neck bones and beef ribs. She's driven three hours in traffic from Grass Valley, Calif., to make the monthly pickup for her three Rhodesian Ridgebacks. She's been feeding them a raw diet for almost four years.

"I was a kibble person before that, and never again," says van der Horst. "All the little problems they had were instantly solved with the raw diet -- tooth problems, inflammatory bowel disease, ears that accumulated wax. They even smell better. It's like a car that's running well." Van der Horst spends $180 a month to feed her dogs (a 50-pound bag of kibble costs $21). But she thinks the price comes out in the wash. "You're sure to save in the end because you're not going to be running to the vet all the time with allergies, ear infections and teeth cleaning," she says.

Yes, the organic, sustainable, locally grown food craze has migrated off the dinner plate and into the dog dish and cat bowl. In recent years, dozens of raw feeding groups and co-ops have sprung up around the country. Pet owners from Texas to Kansas to Pennsylvania and Washington are trading treasured recipes as well as tips on the best source for whole rabbit.

Pet food companies aren't standing by and watching the customers most willing to spend money on their pets negotiate directly with farmers and ranchers. People annually spend $13 billion on dog and cat food, and pet companies are chomping at the bit to cater to organic customers. So far the Purinas haven't entered the fray but start-ups like Primal Pet Foods offer pre-mixed grinds of raw pet diets for sale at Whole Foods Market and boutique pet stores. Primal sells 65,000 pounds of frozen meals per month in 15 states including Illinois, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods, with two locations in San Francisco, pulls in $300 a day in raw food sales at one of its neighborhood stores.

Although many San Francisco raw feeders say they are vegetarians, they see no contradiction in buying gore by the case for their animals. They view their dogs and cats as domesticated carnivores that should be powered by raw protein, not by packaged, processed, preservative-laden kibble made out of who knows what.

Just over a week ago, their suspicions about commercial pet food got some grisly confirmation when 100 dogs in the United States died from contaminated pet food sold under the Diamond, Country Value and Professional brands, now under recall. The food was contaminated with a toxin that wastes the liver, causing vomiting, orange-colored urine and jaundice. The toxin occurs naturally in corn crops that experience wet conditions following a drought. Diamond states that last summer it was rejecting one or two shipments per week of corn because of high levels of the toxin, but some slipped by. Meanwhile, the Pet Food Institute, which represents pet food manufacturers, issued a statement to reassure the public that most pet food is safe.

Raw feeders are not reassured. They insist their pet diets are safer than supermarket brands of pet food, and that dogs and cats get more vitamins and nutrients out of a raw piece of flesh than processed kibble or canned food, largely because "raw" is more natural.

The veterinary establishment is not sold. Neither the American Veterinary Association nor the British Veterinary Association endorses the health benefits of raw food. Both organizations caution that animals fed raw meat run the risk of contracting food-borne illnesses. The British veterinary group declares that "there is no scientific evidence base to support the feeding of raw meat and bones," and warns humans they risk exposing themselves to bacteria like salmonella.

The raw feeders find the dire warnings laughable.

Joanie Levin-Yarlick, a dog trainer, arrives at San Francisco Raw Feeders with her 12-year-old border collie, Levi. "He eats better than I do," she says. The dog sticks out his tongue, happily panting. "You eat better than I do," she coos.

Levin-Yarlick, who wears a white baseball cap and white sweat shirt with the words "Catholic Dogs Gone Bad" emblazoned over a cartoon of three fornicating pooches, says that Levi's diet includes chicken backs, necks and feet, turkey necks and beef bones. She's here not just for the meat, but also to sell T-shirts and sweat shirts, like the one she's wearing, to benefit a local animal nonprofit. One T-shirt displays two doggies kissing and says: "Don't Ask. Don't Tell."

The freezer back home at Levin-Yarlick's place is stuffed with raw food for Levi. "It's his freezer," she says. "I have nothing in it but ice cubes." But Levi's choice repast is not limited to flesh. It also includes a veggie mash that his doting owner makes out of broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, red chard, parsley, garlic, ginger, kelp, alfalfa, zucchini or squash, but never bananas or avocado.

Levin-Yarlick attests that switching her border collie from kibble to this homemade meat- and vegetable-rich diet has given him a lustrous coat and cleared up his bad skin. Since she started making her dog's meals, he's had more energy, better teeth, and even, she says, "his poop is nicer -- it's harder and smaller." But as passionate as Levin-Yarlick is about Levi's transformation on his homemade fare, she doesn't talk about Levi's diet with her vet. "She doesn't agree with the raw diet, so we don't discuss it."

Levin-Yarlick contends that raw food is a natural way to feed dogs. "When they evolved in the wild, nobody cooked their food for them," she says. "They killed their prey and they ate it."

Her view is supported by one of the gurus of raw feeding, Dr. Richard Pitcairn, a University of California at Davis-trained vet who is the author of "Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats," which has sold more than 400,000 copies since it was first published more than 20 years ago. "A lot of this is common sense," Pitcairn says. "How have animals eaten for hundreds of thousands of years? Why should we think that the processed foods that we're feeding them are any better?"

At the heart of raw feeding is the conviction that the rise of the pet food industry over the last 60 years has weaned dogs and cats from the foods most natural to them. Instead, it's hooked them on a bunch of low-quality processed junk food that has a long shelf life, making it cheap and convenient for humans but not good for animals.

Raw feeders see the big pet food companies as offshoots of the human food industry, providing a market for all the waste not deemed fit for people. Say a chicken in the slaughterhouse has a cancerous growth on its wing. That goes into pet food, while the rest of the chicken is slated for human consumption, Pitcairn attests. The pet food trade association dismisses the allegation. Other goodies in pet food? Animals that died on the way to the slaughterhouse and even road kill, Pitcairn claims.

Turning that mishmash into kibble, he says, produces food that is overloaded with too many carbohydrates that dogs and cats, especially cats, don't need. In fact, some vets have experimented with treating feline diabetes by putting diabetic cats on a high-protein, low-carb diet, known, of course, as the "Catkins" diet.

Advocates of raw feeding say most vets receive minimal training in nutrition and simply go along with the nutritional guidelines of pet food companies, even peddling their diets in their offices. Many of the chronic health problems common in today's dogs and cats -- the kind of problems that constitute vets' bread-and-butter -- clear up with a more natural diet, according to Dr. Pitcairn.

"Sixty years ago, there was no such thing as commercial kibble," says Kasie Maxwell, founder of the San Francisco Raw Feeders, who spends about $300 a month feeding her two 7-year-old Great Danes and recently rescued 15-year-old Labrador retriever. Before she started this meat market for pets, Maxwell, a vegan, used to shop for her dogs at Whole Foods. She'd pick up chicken, turkey, beef and lamb -- "whatever they had that looked good, organic, hormone-free and antibiotic-free" -- to the tune of $500 a month.

Most of the raw feeders are casually dressed in jeans, and some, in suits, obviously cut work early to make the pickup. Maxwell, 34, is thin and pale, with red streaks in her dark hair. She wears a black knit cap, black pants and a red plaid jacket. She used to be a veterinarian tech, horse trainer, and information technology manager, but now works at home making her own line of doggie herbal treatments and remedies.

Maxwell read Dr. Pitcairn's book in the early '90s and tried the recipes in them with a 9-year-old kitty named Gem that was suffering from multiple health problems. Maxwell attests that the diet didn't just make Gem feel better, it changed her personality: "Upon switching her to raw, she became like a completely different cat," Maxwell says. "I caught her as a feral cat, and she was a little bit feisty and skittish. But she became really outgoing, really pleasant to be around, really sweet." The cat also lost weight, her arthritis went away, her teeth and overall health improved. Gem lived to be 22.

While Maxwell advocates raw food for dogs, she is especially enthused about it for cats. "In some animals it will fix everything," she says. "I'm talking not only about physical ailments but misbehaviors." Cats, she explains, are very particular. "They won't eat decomposing meat or carrion or fecal matter. They hunt, kill, consume and move on. They're not meant to have kibble sitting out in a bowl all day. I can tell that a kibble-fed cat is a kibble-fed cat just by looking at it. Their systems are designed to eat fresh raw meat at a sitting, and then have no food. They're not meant to be eating grain."

While raw feeders maintain that dogs and cats should eat a diet closer to what their wild cousins eat, and wild ancestors once ate, just what that might be, and how best to approach it, is a subject of hot debate within the raw community. Books like "Raw Meaty Bones" and "Give Your Dog a Bone" represent various permutations. Should you feed a dog grains? No grains? Dairy? No dairy? Vegetables and meat, or just meat? Grind up the bones, or let the dog chew them? What about nutritional supplements?

The debates take arcane turns. If you are a raw feeder who believes wolves do not consume the roughage in their ruminant prey's stomach, then you might feed your dogs meat and bones and no veggies. Depending on which breed of raw feeding is your fancy, Fido's menu can look very different. You might prepare a measured concoction of raw beef, pulped seasonal vegetables and nutritional supplements. Or you might go for the "whole prey" model and just throw a whole rabbit carcass in the backyard for the hungry mutt to tear apart. One approach is known as BARF, which can either stand for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods" or "Bones and Raw Food."

But it can take a bloody lot of effort -- meat grinder, anyone? -- to prepare many of these diets. Some companies now market commercial products to make raw feeding convenient. They sell packaged raw dinners, just thaw and serve for Rex and Tabby. There's Grandad's Pet Foods, the Honest Kitchen, Bravo! the Diet Designed by Nature, and Steve's Real Food for Pets. Nature's Variety markets its products with a photo of a lion and the caption: "He hunts his breakfast, and he's not looking for cereal."

At Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods in San Francisco, the store's motto is "Feed 'em Raw." Among the wares sold here: Dr. Pitcairn's DVD titled "Eat, Drink, and Wag Your Tail," a bit of raw-diet marketing evangelism circa 2004, in which "Master Dog Chef" Micki Voisard, a cancer survivor who says changes in her diet arrested the disease, tells of turning to homemade meals to treat her three cancer-stricken dogs. "So, you wanna be a dog chef?" she asks, before pushing a grocery cart through a supermarket, instructing acolytes how to shop for spinach, celery, parsley, zucchini, garlic, carrots, unsalted butter, eggs and plain yogurt for hungry hounds.

Lynnet Spiegel, the proprietor of Jeffrey's, is a third-generation San Franciscan, who is so confident in the quality of her products that during my visit she popped a cat treat, a piece of freeze-dried chicken, into her mouth and ate it, while inviting me to do the same. I declined.

One customer who swears by the raw meals sold at Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods is Keegan Walden, 30, an interface designer for Wells Fargo Bank. The raw meals he gives his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks consist of free-range chicken, beef parts and a bit of vegetables. "It sounds really disgusting, I know," says Walden. He adds to it Sojos, a mix of oats and walnuts, for roughage.

Walden says that there is no comparison between these ingredients and what's in off-the-shelf kibble: "It's not like you're getting filet mignon in beef kibble. It's skin, it's hoof, it's nail, it's intestine, it's garbage. Dogs can live on it, but it's garbage to begin with, and then it's rendered into dog food, so it's double garbage." He decries the preservatives that are used to make kibble last on the shelf for months and recites the horror stories about dead strays being found in pet food. "There's a lot of evidence to suggest that in the big industrial kibbles, there are other dead dogs," Walden says. "They've analyzed the ingredients, and they've found traces of phenobarbital, which is what they used to put animals to sleep."

Stephen Payne, vice president of communications for the Pet Food Institute, an industry group, says that there are no ground-up dogs and cats in pet food; he maintains it's an urban legend, which no amount of protestation from the industry has been able to quash. But Dr. Rodney Noel, state chemist for Indiana, the state agency that regulates pet food, and a member of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, says that in the past dead strays have been rendered into pet food, but that this hasn't happened for years. One reason: Pet food companies fear the bad publicity.

Commercial pet food is regulated federally by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as on a state-by-state basis, typically under the Department of Agriculture, with guidance from the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

Yet it's the raw diets, not the kibble and canned ones, that vets have special concerns about. Dogs choke on the bones, they report, and suffer obstructions in their digestive tracts that require surgery. The FDA has taken note of the health risks posed for people who feed their pets raw meat, fearing they could contact salmonella and e-coli. With the practice growing in popularity, the agency has issued guidelines for companies marketing raw meat to pets: "FDA does not believe raw meat foods for animals are consistent with the goal of protecting the public from significant risks, particularly when such products are brought into the home and/or used to feed domestic pets."

Julie Churchill is an assistant clinical professor in companion animal nutrition at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. She is not a fan of the raw diets. In general, people handle raw meat or chicken for only a few minutes before tossing it on the grill. But raw feeding exposes us to potential pathogens longer and in different ways. "Even if the animal is not sick, people could get sick from handling the food bowls, handling the food or petting their animals," Churchill says. Just letting your dog lick your face could make you ill, even if your dog is healthy. Such animals are known as "silent shedders," as pathogens escape from their feces, coats or mouths.

Pitcairn believes that risk is overblown. "I've never had an instance to my knowledge over the last 25 years or so where a family has become ill from that," he says. "I don't think that it's very common."

If you must feed your dog fresh beef or chicken, please cook it, recommends Jeffrey T. LeJeune, a veterinarian and assistant professor in the Food Animal Health Research Program at Ohio State University. LeJeune wrote a 2001 paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, "Public Health Concerns Associated With Feeding Raw Meat to Dogs," which cautioned vets to "not recommend the feeding of raw meat to dogs."

Dr. Rachel Strohmeyer, a vet in Kingston, Wash., who also holds a master's degree in clinical sciences and epidemiology, agrees. After conducting research into an outbreak of salmonella at a greyhound breeding farm in Colorado, and investigating pathogens in commercially available raw pet food diets, she says: "I don't have a problem with people who want to make their animal's own food, but I don't understand why you can't cook it. If you cook it, you're going to kill a lot of the potential hazards. Just cook the food."

But supporters of raw feeding believe it's not just the freshness and quality of the ingredients that helps their animals. They believe the heat robs the protein of some of its nutritional value. Molly Rice, a holistic vet who practices at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists in San Francisco, says that about a third of her clients feed raw meat to their pets. Serving it raw, she says, preserves enzymes, vitamins and amino acids. She does, however, advise clients to freeze the food for 72 hours to cut down on bacteria and parasites, and to clean feeding bowls at every feeding.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials, which produces guidelines that states use to determine what's in pet food and how it's sold in the U.S., doesn't have special rules for raw food.

"There are no regulatory measures on raw," says Matt Koss, a chef trained in French and Mediterranean cooking, who now makes food for dogs and cats at Primal Pet Foods. "The guidelines are only geared to regulate kibble, canned and treats. As raw grows, there will be a need for some type of regulation because we can't have people making it out of their garage and potentially jeopardizing the welfare of animals, which will in turn jeopardize the industry." However, he says, the nascent raw food pet industry recently formed the North American Raw Pet Food Association, which will pool resources, create industry standards and conduct scientific research on the nutritional value of raw food.

But even Koss says that the health benefits of feeding raw meat to pets are purely anecdotal, based on the experiences of individual practitioners and holistic and alternative vets. "Most vets think it's dangerous because of bacteria, and they're really unsure what the benefits are nutritionally," he says.

Churchill, the veterinary nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, says it's much harder to create a balanced diet for your pet than you might think. When clients bring her pet recipes plucked from the Internet or books, "it always has some nutritional problems with it," she says. She asks owners to be as skeptical of the people selling raw pet food or recipes as they are of the veterinary establishment. "Are they funding scientific research? Do they have data to show that their product is scientifically based? What are the credentials of whoever is giving you the advice?"

She takes a dim view of the suspicion that vets have been snookered by the pet food industry. "I have not been bought off by a pet food company," she says. "Most vets get a free mug at their national meeting; they're not getting huge financial kickbacks."

Even the holistic or alternative vets who recommend a raw diet say it's not for every dog or cat. "The raw food diet, even though it's a great diet, it's not really great for everybody," says Sara Skiwski, a vet at the Western Dragon in San Jose. "I get irritated not only with vets, but also with some of my clients who feed raw food and are fanatical about it. I really believe that the worst diet in the whole world is a homemade raw food diet that's not properly nutritionally balanced." Just as you wouldn't eat chicken and broccoli every day for the rest of your life, she says, you shouldn't feed your dog or cat the same diet of raw meat every day.

Finally, some animal experts are flabbergasted by the raw feeding debate. Katie Merwick, who rehabilitates wolves at Second Chance Ranch animal rescue sanctuary in Washington state, believes that many of the cures cited by raw feeders -- skin infections, allergies, ear infections -- can be gained by feeding pets a higher quality of kibble. Oh, and that glossy coat raw feeders brag about? That's from all the fat in the meat, she says, which can cause other health problems like pancreatitis. As someone who has seen malnutrition and disease in wolves firsthand, she cautions pet owners against making a fetish out of what animals eat in the wild. "Our dogs are privileged to have formulated food," she says. After all, "we don't eat like cavemen anymore."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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