Poncho's Homemade Dog Food: A Longtime Vegetarian Cooks Meat

photo by Dawn Brighid

I recently adopted an adorable two-year-old Chihuahua mix, Poncho. He came from a no-kill shelter in my neighborhood where he had been for only 3 days after coming from Animal Care and Control. He was terribly skinny. Determined fatten him up, I headed to the store to buy dog food for him. My first attempts involved all kinds of pre-made organic and “all natural” dog food, but he turned his nose up at my choices. Expensive mistakes that didn’t bring me any closer to a healthy dog. The more I thought about what I could get him to eat, the closer I started looking at the dog food labels.

As I read the ingredient lists, it really got me thinking…where was the meat coming from? If it has an organic label, are they taking into consideration animal welfare standards at all? And my most immediate and urgent problem, what will this picky dog eat?

To make things more complicated, I've been vegetarian for 25 years. First eliminating beef and pork, then chicken and turkey and finally fish, the process of cutting out meat was a gradual but effortless one; I never even liked the taste of meat, I feel healthy and I really love being a vegetarian. As a teenager, I hadn’t even begun to consider (much less understand) the complicated issues around meat production and consumption. But over the years, I've only solidified my vegetarian habits by learning about the issues involved – personal health, environmental health, animal welfare, worker’s rights, etc.  I pride myself in being non-judgmental (at least, most of the time) of other people’s food choices, even as my diet has edged toward veganism. Poncho, on the other hand, has a hard enough time eating anything.

My options felt extremely limited. Desperate to put some pounds on Poncho, I bought sliced deli turkey, and he loved it. Knowing that, I decided to try making his food. I found a dog food recipe and felt hopeful that Poncho would eat meat I cooked at home, and that this solution would give me control over the meat I was buying (I could buy USDA organic). I was setting myself up to be Poncho’s non-vegetarian chef, which truly grossed me out, but it seemed better than wondering what was in the cans that he wouldn’t eat anyway. I bought some turkey that I always see at my food coop, a nice-sounding brand called Shady Brook Farms. I squeamishly cooked it  with quinoa and sweet potatoes, and eventually, with some tweaking of the recipe, Poncho was eating the food I made him and liking it! He gained 3 pounds, a lot for a Chihuahua.

I was feeling quite successful. But then I realized that the turkey I was buying didn’t have the USDA organic label on it. I had been fooled by my desire to believe that because I bought the meat at my food coop that the chickens/turkeys/cows were living happy organic lives on a bucolic farm. I looked into Shady Brook Farms and found out that not only are they not organic, but they are owned by the food giant Cargill. What?!

Back to the drawing board, and even more skeptical now. Because I haven’t had to buy meat – ever – I realized that I wasn’t sure what the labels really mean. Does USDA organic take into consideration animal welfare issues or is that just what I want to think? USDA organic certification does mean that the animals had 100% organic feed, weren’t given hormones or antibiotics and had access to pasture. I wanted to know more about animal welfare issues and “access to pasture,” so I needed to do some research.

It turns out that on June 17, 2010, a new access to pasture rule came into effect (meaning that by June of 2011, all organic producers will have to comply). That rule specifies what “access to pasture” means for ruminants under organic standards. Here are the regulations written up in Farming Magazine:

  • Provide year-round access for all animals to the outdoors.
  • Recognize pasture as a crop.
  • Establish a functioning management plan for pasture.
  • Incorporate the pasture management plan into the farm’s organic system plan.
  • Provide ruminants with pasture throughout the grazing season for their geographical location.
  • Ensure ruminants derive a minimum average of 30 percent of their dry matter intake requirement from pasture over a 120-day minimum grazing season.

But it still felt lacking to me. “Ensure ruminants derive a minimum average of 30 percent of their dry matter intake requirement from pasture over a 120-day minimum grazing season.” What does that mean? If a cow lives to be two years old, does that mean that each year only 8 months of their lives will be on pasture – or does that mean that only 30 percent over those 120 days needs to be from pasture?

And what about chickens and turkeys? I was having a difficult time deciphering this information and an even harder time navigating the USDA website. So, still confused, I decided that a trusted third party certification was the best way for me to feel comfortable about buying meat from a grocery store. With a reputable third party certification (don’t get me wrong, the access to pasture ruling is a huge step in the right direction), everything is spelled out.

Animal Welfare Approved is probably the strictest, most comprehensive third party certification out there. Their website is easy to navigate. They have standards for pigs, chickens, geese, sheep, bison, turkey, goat, rabbit and more. Each standards page goes into ownership and operations, breeds and origins of animals, health management, emergencies, animal management, food and water, ranging and foraging access, housing and shelter, removal of animals from the approved farm, protection from predators and control of rats and mice, records and record keeping, handling, transport, slaughter and program management.

Wow, that is truly thorough.

Whether you're a vegetarian trying to fatten up a rescue dog, a mom trying to feed your family right or just a conscientious eater, it’s important to educate yourself about the food you are buying, be clear about what you are looking for and ask lots of questions. Our website offers a pocket guide to meat labeling that you can download and questions to ask a store manager or a farmer. Your best option? Get meat directly from a farmer or at a farmers' market, ask them what their standards are and avoid the middle person.

But if you can’t buy directly from a farmer, do some research on the labels you find at your local store. Whole foods and other stores often partner with a certifier for their labeling. You might also find regional certifications that are local to your area.

And if you are dog owner but don’t want to become your pet’s personal chef, there are good organic options for you. We recently interviewed Lucy Postins of the Honest Kitchen– they make dog food with animal welfare in mind. And there are other companies out there, get on Google and you might even find one in your city.

Remember that none of these labels take into account the living conditions of an animal:

NATURAL:  A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)  Probably the most toothless of all food labels.

NO HORMONES (pork or poultry):  Hormones are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry. Therefore, the claim “no hormones added” cannot be used on the labels of pork or poultry unless it is followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

NO HORMONES (beef):  The term “no hormones administered” may be approved for use on the label of beef products if sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency by the producer showing no hormones have been used in raising the animals.

NO ANTIBIOTICS (red meat and poultry):  The terms “no antibiotics added” may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to the Agency demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

Check out "These Labels Are So Confusing!" for some help at the grocery store.