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Making meals fit for a pet

The ingredients listed on the cream-and-aqua label sound good: chicken, peas, carrots, squash, garlic and more in a stew prepared in a USDA-approved kitchen. When you open the can, the big, colorful chunks in golden gravy send up an inviting aroma.

But no stew for you.

Spot's Stew, made by a Tarpon Springs company called Halo, Purely for Pets, is for dogs and cats. First cooked up in a Pinellas County kitchen 18 years ago, it's now the foundation of a thriving business that distributes its all-natural pet products in 4,000 stores nationwide.

And it all started with a sick little cat named Spot.

Andi Brown, the company's founder, says, "I started Halo because I wanted to educate people about changing their pets' diet to real, natural, wholesome food."

Brown is a slim, auburn-haired woman who radiates energy. She runs the business from a big blue warehouse in Tarpon Springs. On duty in her handsome office during an interview are two of her three dogs, a reserved Hungarian Kuvasz named Sweetie who naps in a corner and an Australian shepherd, Jasmine, who monitors a visitor as intently as she would a sheep.

At home are another Aussie, Bravo, and two cats, Kitty and Bijou. They all eat Halo food. "We fed Jasmine before she was born," Brown says, by feeding Spot's Stew to the pup's mother. "She's 5 now. Doesn't she look like she's wearing a mink coat?"

Spot didn't have such a good start. In 1985, Brown was running a printing business in Pinellas County, having moved here from New York City. Looking for a cat to adopt, she went to Friends of Strays.

"I'm walking through talking to all of them," Brown says, "and I get to this one cage, and I don't see anything in it. He was huddled behind the litter box."

The volunteer told her the cat was wild and ill. "He had every problem known to veterinary science," including eye and ear problems, allergies and a genetic intestinal problem.

Brown couldn't give up on Spot even when five veterinarians told her to put the cat to sleep. She told her friend Voyko Marx, a chef, herbalist and student of nutrition, about the cat.

"He said, "What are you feeding him?' The best cat food, I said. This was 1986. People weren't reading labels. He looked at the ingredients and said, "No wonder the cat's sick. You're feeding him garbage.' "

Marx cooked up a stew of fresh chicken and vegetables, and all three of them _ Marx, Brown and Spot _ shared it. Spot stayed on it, and Brown says that within days his health improved. After a few months on the stew, the cat's health problems had disappeared.

Brown says, "I hate to cook, and I'm the worst cook. But every Sunday was dedicated to Spot's Stew for 10 years."

Soon she was telling friends about the benefits of cooking fresh foods for their pets. One friend had a Labrador retriever with skin problems. A week after the dog was fed a batch of Spot's Stew, his skin was better and the friend was ecstatic.

"A week later, the dog was sick again. She said, "He was doing well, so I put him back on his old food.' In the middle of her sentence, you could hear the wind being knocked out of her."

Brown was having her own epiphany. Her printing business had about 350 customers. "But it didn't make my heart soar. I always wanted to work with animals, but I didn't want to be a vet, and I didn't want to be a groomer.

She began developing the idea of starting a pet food company. "I started doing research into commercial pet foods, and it was pretty horrific.

"They were loaded with preservatives and dyes. The companies are permitted to use all kinds of byproducts, everything that's rejected for human consumption," including heads, beaks, fur, eyeballs and even road kill.

Even top-end pet foods use grains as fillers, such as corn, wheat and rice. Because dogs and cats are carnivores, Brown says, "That has no nutritional value for the animal. It's like potato chips. It will fill them up, but it will never promote greater health.

"People can live on potato chips and beer, but not necessarily long and not necessarily well."

Brown says that in a carnivore's digestive system grains quickly turn to sugar and put stress on the pancreas. That may be one reason for the increasing rate of diabetes among household pets, as well as the epidemic level of obesity.

Brown worked with Marx to formulate Spot's Stew. But selling her products wasn't easy at first.

"When I first went to the stores in '90, the pet stores laughed at me. They said, "Who the hell is going to buy natural pet foods?' Vets threw me out.

"So I tiptoed into the health food stores, and they said, "This sounds cool.' "

Natural foods stores are still her biggest outlet, Brown says, including several around the Tampa Bay area. Spot's Stew went on the market in 1998, quickly followed in time by 28 other products for cats, dogs and birds.

One of the company's bestsellers is Liv-a-Littles, freeze-dried treats of chicken, beef, cod or salmon.

"We just take the water out. It's USDA freeze-dried meat. End of story. People call me up and say, "Can you read me the ingredients in your chicken treats?' And I say, "Sure, got a pen? It's chicken. That's it. Just chicken'."

Halo also makes herbal grooming products. "Before we give anything to the pets, we try it on ourselves," Brown says. "That's why (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) loves us: We strap the humans down and test on them."

Brown says Halo has grown each year, and these days pet stores don't wonder who will buy natural products for pets. Most of the big commercial pet food manufacturers now offer "natural" products, as do a host of small companies.

"They say it takes 20 years to make a real change, and here it is 18 years later," Brown says.

Spot the cat died about four years ago, some 14 years after veterinarians gave him months to live. "His legacy changed an industry."

It also changed Brown's life. She left the printing business behind once Halo was a going concern, and she has made a number of television appearances to tell her story. "A lot of famous people have eaten our dog food," including Montel Williams and actor John O'Hurley. "I was on To Tell the Truth."

She's not cooking all that Spot's Stew in her kitchen, but she still has her spoon in its production. "I've tasted every single batch of our cat and dog food we've ever made. We have to be sure the vegetables are sweet, the meat is robust and there's enough gravy."

All the ingredients are "human grade," Brown says, and the food is cooked in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved kitchen.

The pet food retails for about $3 for a 15-ounce can. "Real food costs more than potato chips," Brown says. "Our product is literally more expensive because it has no fillers."

But she has confidence in it. Not only does she feed it to her pets, she once fed it to her mother.

Mom, who was 90, was staying with Brown while recovering from the flu and asked for a bowl of soup.

"I go to the cupboard and there's no soup. So I opened up a can of the cat food. I added water to thin it out a little, I seasoned the heck out of it _ spices, salt, garlic _ and I put it in a nice bowl."

Her mother ate it and said she was feeling much better.

"About a half hour later, she says, "Andi? You didn't give me cat food, did you?'

"I said, "No, Mom, no.' "

Brown shrugs. "It's chicken soup."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroftsptimes.com.

MORE INFORMATION

For information or to order Halo, Purely for Pets products, go to www.halopets.com or call 1-800-426-4256.

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