Organic Food: Not Just For Humans

Patrons of this Los Angeles health food boutique have their choice of a cutting edge selection of foods and supplements, including the likes of calcified seaweed, Chinese herbs and fresh venison. They can even sample an organic cookie while they browse the store.

But if they want to make a purchase, they’ll have to beg their owners for their credit card.

My Pet Naturally is one of a growing number of dog boutiques that embraces all-natural wares. In addition to raw food and exotic treats, it sells recycled and hemp products and “a lot of the same supplements that people take,” said owner Neil Massa.

Consumers have become more concerned about organic food not only for themselves, but for their pets as well. Sales of organic pet food increased ten times from 2002-2009, according to the Organic Trade Association. And analysts predict the industry will grow even more, at 12 percent a year through 2015, according to Packaged Facts Market Research Company. Organic pet food is more expensive, it can cost as much as 30 percent more than non-organic, but an increasing number of pet owners are willing to pay the higher price. A few factors may contribute to this trend: two high-profile incidents of contaminated commercial food and an overall growth in the pet industry due to more Americans bringing furry friends into their homes.

Massa said he thinks the trend toward organic pet food took off more in urban areas because the residents are more attuned to holistic living.

“If you look at big cities, people are more aware of their food sources and they want the same for their pets. In metropolitan areas, people are more aware of wanting organic than you see in smaller towns,” he said. “I know from experience. My in-laws are from a smaller town and they have more of a Wal-Mart mentality.”

But even in Los Angeles, Massa finds he must still compete with chain stores, where prices range about five percent cheaper, he said.

“Because I have a smaller store, I buy food by the bag rather than by the truckload, like they do. They can buy more food and get a better deal on it,” Massa said. “We might also sell something for the same price, but it will end up being cheaper at a chain store because they offer a coupon.”

A pound of raw venison costs $8.00 at My Pet Naturally, while at Wal-Mart; customers can buy a 27.5 lb. bag of venison flavored dry food for $30.


(Supplement shelves at My Pet Naturally)

Massa opened his store in 2006, a year before Menu Foods pet food manufacturer recalled more than 60 million containers of food. Menu Foods, which was based in Ontario, Canada, was the largest dog and cat food maker in North America. Its products were sold under well-known brand names atchain stores such as Petsmart and Wal-Mart.

“I’ve been making homemade food for my dogs since the 1980s,” Massa said. “I saw there was a need for it and not many were doing it. I read an article about how dead animals become dog food around the same time that people became more aware of Mad Cow disease.” Massa said the recall bumped business up about 10 percent and helped make up the difference in the lack of customers during the recession.

The toxic food killed about 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs, according to estimates from the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Food and Drug Administration found that the Chinese wheat gluten present in Menu products was tainted with melamine, a substance also used in fertilizer. It is not approved as an ingredient for pet or human food. The products also had a contaminant used as rat poison, and another used to stabilize chlorine in swimming pools. Consequently, the incident scared many pet owners into shelling out for higher-quality fare.

Jacob Gonzalez, the owner of Woof Dog Boutique in Los Angeles, said organic food is “almost the first thing” customers are looking for since the beginning of another epidemic, also in 2007. In this case, thousands of dogs have fallen ill and about 600 died over the course of seven years after eating jerky treats imported from China. The FDA is still investigating the causes. The problems do not seem specific to a certain brand or manufacturer, but according to the FDA, dogs all over the world have been affected. Gonzalez said that ever since, his clientele have made buying American-made food another priority.

Even before the two food episodes, sales of natural and organic pet products had been growing in the U.S. by teen-double-digit rates since 2002, according to Packaged Facts. But in 2007, sales jumped 43 percent. This may result from the contaminations, as well more pet food marketers extending their lines to ‘natural’ products at this time as well. Sales continued rising to 20 percent in 2008. The increase dipped to six percent during the recession in 2009, but it began climbing up in 2010 and growth went back into the double-digits in 2011.



(Packaged Facts)

Some brands market their pet food with labels such as “natural,” “premium,” or “holistic,” and it is typically more expensive. For example, the brand Alpo Come & Get It! Cookout Classics is sold for $0.51 per pound, while Iams Sensitive Naturals Dog Food fetches $2.49 per pound, according to But the label does not necessarily mean the food is healthier. It is only the “organic,” designation that requires manufacturers to meet any standards. For both human and pet food, 95 percent of the ingredients must be organically grown or cultivated without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers in order to meet the qualifications set by the USDA. Some of the brands containing tainted food from Menu included products billed as “natural.”

Century City resident Linda Schwartz began buying raw venison from My Pet Naturally upon recommendation from her veterinarian. Her Shih Tzu dog was experiencing stomach issues for about six months, including colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

“My vet said the preservatives in normal food were making my dog sick,” she said. Schwartz is also a fan of the store’s treats that Massa’s wife makes on-site. “My dog is allergic to chicken, but not the treats because they just have chicken juice.” She said that since she started feeding her dog raw meat her dog’s stomach issues have improved.

Although raw meat diets have proved beneficial to some pets, they are not recommended for all. The American Veterinary Association discourages feeding pets raw and uncooked meat because of the food-born illnesses it could inflict on both pets and the humans who are in contact with them. A study at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts found that up to 48 percent of raw commercial food tested contained salmonella. The researchers also found that these diets could contribute to nutritional deficiencies.

But pet owners are treating their pets more like people, which sometimes means projecting their own desires onto their four-legged children. Sixty-two percent of American households own pets, up from 56% in 1988, according to statistics from trade association American Pet Products. And pet owners are spending more on everything, from products such as Halloween costumes to services related to travel and grooming, according to a 2013 report on pet trends from pet insurance company Embrace.

“People treat their pets like family members,” Gonzalez said. “Not just the dog we leave outside.”







The Fight To Bring Down College Tuition

As the expense of college increases, with a seemingly less significant return on investment, students and parents have started to question if it’s really worth it.


After a huge surge in tuition prices over the last 30 years, higher education costs are slowing very slightly (Quartz)

After a huge surge in tuition prices over the last 30 years, higher education costs are slowing very slightly (Quartz)

Graduates still earn more than those with only a high-school diploma. Former college students aged 25-32 who are working full-time still earn about $17,500 more than their counterparts without degrees, according to the Economist. But still, 42% of graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year degree, and 41% of graduates from the nation’s top universities could not find jobs in their field. These are shaky outcomes for an investment that will set students back as much as $60,000 a year.

In some ways, the college bubble is similar to the housing bubble, which came crashing down in 2007. Poor risk assessment played a role in both situations. Homebuyers were able to obtain a loan that they had no way to repay. And students’ parents are co-signers for their loans, which makes it hard to determine the ability of the actual borrower to repay the debt. Also, both big houses and a college education exist as part of the American Dream to the national collective: everyone has a right to a home, and an education is an investment one cannot afford to pass up.

Companies such as Upstart, Pave and Lumni have developed a plan to reduce student debt: they are giving future scholars the option to sell “stock” in themselves rather than obtaining a traditional loan. Two congressmen, Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Petri (R-WI) have introduced legislation that could make this process more legitimate by setting out its terms, according to Slate Magazine. Their Investing in Student Success Act defines the maximum length a contract can last (30 years) and puts a limit on the future income a student can owe (15 percent). The debt is paid off each month in proportion to students’ earnings, so the amount they owe for a particular month depends on their salary at the time. Their ‘worth’ as an investment package depends on factors such as standardized test scores, job prospects and credit history. But although this method was designed to breach the inequality gap, the students that look like the best investments are usually the ones who grew up with more opportunities. To take this into consideration may result in another conflict about affirmative action, which would mirror the debate going on in colleges today.

Alan Collinge founded nonprofit after struggling with his own loans.

Alan Collinge founded nonprofit after struggling with his own loans.

Although this method addresses a way to avoid future debt, new graduates are already facing loans that they don’t have a way to repay. To help this group, the nonprofit organization Student Loan Justice is pushing to have the bankruptcy law changed to put restrictions on how and for how long lenders can chase debtors. Currently, student loans are more difficult to expunge in bankruptcy proceedings than credit card debt. Since it was founded in 2005, the nonprofit has gained a large social media presence with chapters in all 50 states up on Facebook.




The Olympics: Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be


The Olympic games are becoming increasingly more expensive to host. The final operating cost for the 2008 Beijing games was $40 billion, compared the $15 billion spent on the previous Olympics in Athens. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the cost was even lower. The spending for the 1992 Barcelona games topped out at $9.5 billion and the Seoul Olympics cost the government $4 billion.

But for all its investments in sporting venues, security and housing for the athletes, host countries are not experiencing much long-term gain. Sochi was the most expensive Olympics to date, but the Russian government has no plan for the village. It is out of the price range of middle-class Russians, and the wealthy can easily fly to more established tourist locations such as Europe for skiing or the Turkish beaches in the summer. The venues from the Athens games are crowded with weeds, and the stadium in Beijing is now little more than a Segway track for tourists.


So why do countries continue to fight for it? The Olympics exists in popular imagination as a utopian ideal. Every government competing for the bid seems to think their country will prove the exception to the trend. Some nations use the games as an opportunity to revitalize a bad part of town, such as London and Atlanta. In Atlanta, the effort was largely a success; but nothing really changed for the neighborhoods surrounding the renewed downtown area. They are still considered an urban blight. The British government claims that the $15 billion investment paid off, and cited a study conducted by a team of consultants as proof. But according to NPR, the government funded the study, and Max Nathan, an independent economist in London, said it’s too soon to tell if hosting the Olympics paid off in the long run.


Highway to Sao Paulo airport

Already the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro are facing some roadblocks. Brazilians protested the amount of government spending on the Olympics and the upcoming World Cup when education and health-care are suffering. Construction projects are also running behind schedule due to a shortage of skilled workers. And the roads and airports are insufficient to handle an influx of tourists, according to the policy journal Americas Quarterly. For example, visitors are already recommended to leave their hotels five hours before flights from the Sao Paulo airport, due to choking traffic and long lines at the airline counters. Athens suffered from similar problems with infrastructure but was able to pull together an international airport and walkways for pedestrians that had been in the works for 15 years. Like the ancient city before it, Brazil may pull off a great Games, but it remains to be seen if its economy will fall to a similar tragic fate.



Mexico’s Drug Trade: A Cinderella Story

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The Mexicans dominate the drug trade. To eliminate it would shrink Mexico’s economy by more than half, according to Global Envision, the website for humanitarian agency Mercy Corps.

But it always wasn’t that way. The Mexicans have operated drug cartels since the 1990s, when the United States began to restrict marijuana. But it was the Colombians who reaped the profit as they cornered the valuable cocaine market. The drug is produced from the coca leaf grown in the Colombian jungles. The Colombians then shipped it from the ports into the Caribbean to the U.S. All that began to change when the U.S. government began to crack down on the overseas route, forcing cartels to smuggle drugs up through Mexico and Latin America. It was more difficult to spot drugs coming across the border than flying over the islands. Thus, the Mexicans gained more power in their negotiations with the Colombians.

They gradually began climbing the value chain, or taking over jobs from their partners. They cut out the middlemen who moved drugs from South America to the U.S. They also seized Colombian cocaine labs and transferred the materials to their own labs in Honduras and Guatemala. Thus, while marijuana helped the Mexican cartels gain a foothold in the drug trade, it was cocaine and its growing demand in the U.S. that boosted them to the top of the food chain.

In 2006, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon made his intentions clear to wage a war on the drug trade. He deployed over 3,000 troops to destroy crops and gather information about the cartels. But his efforts had unintended consequences as they actually increased drug-related violence. The cartels could have been trying to intimidate the government, which their continued kidnappings and theft at Pemex, a state-sponsored oil company, seem to suggest. The government crackdowns on drugs also increased their scarcity power, which led to more brutal competition among the cartels for access to the product.


The War on Drugs is now acknowledged as a failure, and Mexico’s new President Peña-Nieto is trying to attract foreign investment to expand legitimate business in the country. In December, he signed a controversial law that allows foreign companies to drill oil in the hopes that it will help Mexico boost its output. Oil is Mexico’s biggest legal export, but is of course second overall to marijuana and cocaine.

Mexico and the U.S. are still figuring out ways to break the corrupted backbone of Mexico’s economy. While two U.S. states have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana, Peña-Nieto opposes this as a solution. According to the Brookings Institute, a think tank dedicated to public policy, authorities should target the middle management of the drug cartels rather than the kingpins and the foot soldiers. The middle layer is harder to replace and does not foster as much violence for leadership roles. But while the two governments negotiate solutions, the demand for marijuana and cocaine remains steady, and entire towns carry out their day-to-day activities under the watchful eye and funds of the drug lords.

Running A Nail Salon

When Susanna Jang, the owner of Tips To Toes salon in south Los Angeles, started her business in 2004, she could depend on customers to call for an appointment.

But with a nail salon on every corner, she said customers have become “spoiled,” and no longer stick to appointments or even make them at all. Now, when they do call, it’s to ask about pricing, and if they end up coming in, they request a cheaper service such as a polish change versus a manicure.

“I lose the most customers when it’s busy and they don’t want to wait,” Jang said. “It used to be that more people made appointments, but now customers expect to come in and be served right away.”

Jang, who moved from Korea in 1990, cannot afford to lose any business. But she says it is hard to predict when the salon will fill up if customers think they no longer have to call in advance.

In addition to manicures and pedicures, Tips To Toes on Figueroa Street offers other beauty treatments such as facials and waxing. The salon attracts most of its business from students at the nearby University of Southern California, and for the first time in ten years, Jang said she is unable to predict the busy cycles.

“Before, I always knew that during the midterm and finals seasons, I would have no customers. The busy seasons were before spring break, back to school and sorority rush. I would always have more people working Thursday and Friday before the weekends, but I can’t read customers’ minds anymore,” Jang said.

For this reason, Jang said she thinks secular rather than cyclical shifts affect the salon more. But the recession and the government shutdown, as well as the abundance of cheap nail salons, have taken a toll on her profits. She said that after the 16-day-long shutdown in October, she lost 40 percent of her customers in the area.

“Because people were laid off, it made them think they should be careful,” she said.

In 2006, the housing costs reached a peak in Southern California and Jang saw a boom of customers. “They must have thought they had a lot since the value of their homes had gone up,” she said. But then, after the bubble burst and prices fell in 2007, the swell of business dried up. “Some people came regularly, but when we heard they were looking for a place to live, they stopped coming.” The other businesses in the same office plaza have struggled too: “there was an acupuncture place next door that was doing good business before the economy went bad, but they had to move two years ago,” Jang said.

Jang has had to contend with salons that offer increasingly lower prices for the same services.

“I think what I charge is pretty standard,” she said ($16 manicure, $21 pedicure). “I don’t know how they can survive that way, unless the owners have husbands or someone to support them.”

Indeed, Jang’s hunch may be correct. Some salons set their prices so low that they cannot maintain a healthy business. Last summer, ABC News reported on a 20/20 investigation that revealed that many salons are unsanitary. In California, investigators found tuberculosis-related bacteria in 16 of the 18 spas they checked. According to an expert in salon-related infections aiding the investigation, competition is so high that discount salons may skimp on skilled technicians and high-quality disinfectant to keep their prices low.

In 2009, TIME magazine reported that nail salons nationwide took a 25 percent revenue plunge. During the recession, Jang lost business slowly, since she maintained a base of regular customers from USC. But she said that up until four years ago, she never got phone calls about prices.

Jang plans on keeping the prices on the basics the same, but is considering raising the cost of “extras” such as gel manicures. The reason she has not done this already is because it is difficult for her to attract new customers and she knows the regular ones are willing to pay the current amount. “They care about service, not prices,” she said. When she first opened Tips To Toes, Jang offered a discount in the Daily Trojan for a free tenth visit. But only her regulars benefitted. Now, Jang relies on word of mouth and tries “not to hire beginners,” to keep the quality of her service.

The recession may have affected business in another way: worried about job security after graduation, USC students may have put in more time at the library rather than attending parties, thus creating less of a demand for professional beauty care.

“The girls that come in look tired and like they’re under more stress in the past five years,” Jung said.

But on the other had, a salon visit can also serve as a way to recharge, which is the reason Jung remains optimistic about the future of Tips To Toes.

“The salon is different from a place like Blockbusters (a video rental chain that closed in the U.S.). You feel positive because people come in to relieve stress. It’s a human-to-human service.”