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The organic option

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

(Photo)
Victoria McDowell of Jackson is the owner of Miss Autumn's Barkery, which offers a selection of organic dog food.
(Fred Lynch)
The pet food recall last weekend did not shock Victoria McDowell. For years she's been telling people they need to change their pet's diet.

"People respond that they've had healthy pets all their lives," she said. "I ask them, 'Are you sure? Do you think they've died of natural causes?'"

McDowell runs an organic pet food company called Miss Autumn's Barkery out of her home at 1105 Saddlebrooke Ridge in Jackson. She is willing to come up with a recipe specifically devised for a customer's pet's dietary needs. She also has made an arrangement with a human-grade pet food plant in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling, Ill., that will ship larger quantities around the world.

The organic pet food is about $3 for 13 ounces right now, but if interest persists, the price will go down.

"People need to be reassured they don't have to rely on these big pet food chains because that's all there is. It's simply not true," said McDowell, who studied veterinary medicine in college and is a certified thoroughbred horse breeder. "All these pet foods are being taken off the shelves, but not ours."

(Photo)
Victoria McDowell got a kiss from her Boston terrier pug, Missy, while holding her boxer, Autumn.
(Fred Lynch)
McDowell sells to local stores like Cup 'N' Cork and My Daddy's Cheesecake. She and Schnucks are working out the logistics of getting her product on the shelf.

The idea of McDowell's business began about five years ago when her English Staffordshire terrier had a rare form of cancer. When the animal's tumor doubled in size, it couldn't be saved. McDowell told her veterinarian she had been feeding the dog a prescription diet. The vet told her to research every ingredient in dog food because one of them may have caused the cancer. McDowell read about pesticides, chemicals like bleach and rendered animal remains from dogs, cats, horses and cattle in a book by Ann N. Martin called "Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food" and was appalled, she said.

Martin said pet food recalls happen once or twice a year, the latest is just one of the bigger ones. "As far as the deaths of the dogs and cats, we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," she said. "I think it's going to amount in the hundreds, anyway." She is writing a series of books about pet food; the third book is coming out this fall.

Nothing people can't eat

Martin inspired McDowell to consult with animal experts and come up with the formula she sells today. McDowell imports her ingredients from Italy, Costa Rica and from local organic farms. "It's not dog food. It's people food made for dogs," she said. "It doesn't smell like dog food. We don't make anything that people can't eat." She uses ingredients like yogurt, eggs, chicken broth, peas, carrots and brown rice.

(Photo)
Organic biscottis cooled on a cookie sheet after Victoria McDowell baked them in her kitchen.
(Fred Lynch)
Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine is one of several laboratories studying the pet food recall. No toxins that explain the renal failure that killed and sickened pets have been discovered at this point, according to university spokeswoman Sabina Lee. "Our scientists are just trying to help out by doing diagnostic testing of food samples and tissue of diseased animals to identify the cause of illnesses of these pets," she said.

According to Dr. Brett Ward of Cape Small Animal Clinic, one or two clients called expressing concerns that they fed their animals the recalled food, but he hasn't seen any kidney problems. "Pet food in America and human food are pretty much the safest in the world," he said. "This is just a heads-up that we should test more frequently."

Dr. Paula Mohan of Heartland Veterinary Care in Jackson said she's suspicious about one cat that came in Monday, but nothing has been confirmed. "The volume of different pet food and labels that have been recalled does surprise me," she said.

According to Dr. Wanda Pipkin of Deer Ridge Animal Hospital in Jackson, kidney failure occurred in a cat last week, but the cause was undetermined.

The pet food that is affected is the "cuts and gravy" type sold in cans and small foil pouches.

Pipkin said the manufacturer makes food for many different companies according to their specific proprietary formula and recipe. "Wal-Mart brand foods, in order to meet a lower retail price point, are going to be made with cheaper ingredients. High-end brands will be made with more expensive ingredients in order to produce a higher quality of food that is more efficient, absorbable and better for overall health," she said. "If there is an ingredient common to all brands, like wheat gluten, then all brands are affected. Even the organic pet food can have toxins. I don't know if you're going to be 100 percent safe with anything."

McDowell, who takes her two dogs and cat to Pipkin, agrees. "Look at people. It even happens in our food," she said. "You can really try your hardest to do your best. These big companies have to be very careful. They're not careful enough."

McDowell is working on a recipe for cat food and already has treats available. She's also in talks with some Southeast Missouri banks in hopes of building a plant in Southeast Missouri to produce organic pet food.

Cape Girardeau Area Magnet executive director Mitch Robinson said he's been working with McDowell for six weeks as she seeks funding for equipment and a location.

"The potential is pretty unlimited right now, especially with what's happened in the industry," he said. "Timing is everything. Hopefully she could take advantage of what's happening."

For a complete list of the pet foods that have been recalled, go to menufoods.com/recall.

tkrakowiak@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137


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