updated 3/23/2007 5:13:49 PM ET 2007-03-23T21:13:49

When dog lover Carol Will heard that tainted wheat gluten had spurred a pet food recall, she wasn’t surprised to find out the commodity ingredient was used in a lot of generic brands like Hy-Vee and Price Chopper.

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But Nutro Natural Choice? That’s top-shelf stuff.

“That made me sit up and say: ’Wait a second, I need to look into this further,”’ Will recalled.

Will has more than her own pets to worry about. She makes a living selling high-end dog food — along with doggy dresses and raincoats — at her store, Lola & Penelope’s Premier Pet Boutique and Wellness Center.

Will stakes her business on assuring customers the food they buy is healthy. That’s why they spend $58 for a 20 pound bag of dog food made with free-range chicken.

That Will was worried she might be hit by the recall highlights a question that pet owners around the country are facing: Are luxury pet food brands that different from the cheaper stuff?

“The foods are basically the same up to a point,” said David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Same building blocks
Pet food companies distinguish the more expensive brands by blending in higher-quality ingredients like canola oil, lamb meat or vitamin supplements. But a few building block ingredients are common to almost any pet food brand on sale in a typical grocery store aisle, Kirkpatrick said.

Commodity products like corn gluten, wheat gluten and meat meal form the nutritional backbone of a many pet foods, said Robert Backus, assistant professor of small animal nutrition at the University of Missouri.

“You’ll find those in many of the dry types of pet food and canned foods,” Backus said.

That’s why 95 brands of pet food were caught up in the recent recall, when just one manufacturer was found to have tainted ingredients. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets said Friday that rat poison was found in products made by Menu Foods Inc.

Inspectors thought wheat gluten found in the products was linked to the deaths of at least 16 cats and dogs nationwide. The tainted ingredient led to the recall of 60 million cans and pouches of Menu Foods pet foods nationwide.

Consumer caught off guard
The recall caught many consumers off guard.

Julie Benesh said she was surprised to find cans of Iams cat food in her pantry that had serial numbers showing they were part of the recall. She thought she was feeding her three cats food that was made with higher-end ingredients than generic brands.

“When I stopped about three years ago giving them super market brands, I thought I was really upgrading,” Benesh said.

Backus said consumers can check the ingredient labels on their pet food to see what it’s made of. But even that can be tricky. Cheaper brands might be made of “meat meal” while higher-end brands have ingredients listed simply as beef or chicken.

Compare ingredients
Consumers who really want to dig deep can compare ingredients with a more extensive list kept by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, Backus said. The group defines how ingredients are listed.

Meat meal, for example, can contain any kind of animal tissue, but no hoofs or hair. “Poultry byproduct meal” can contain chicken feet and other meat, but no feathers, Backus said.

St. Louis-based Nestle Purina PetCare Company declined to say just how it adds value to these basic products to make a spectrum of pet foods. The company recalled Mighty Dog brand pouch products that were produced by Menu Foods between Dec. 3 and March 14.

While customers might not know the exact blend of their pet food, manufacturers must list food ingredients ranked by their prevalence, with majority ingredients listed first.

Will said she tells her customers to stick to products that have simple ingredients listed first, like turkey or rice. She said none of the boutique brands she carries were affected by the recall.

If customers don’t want to pay top dollar — or spend time researching every ingredient in the food — they always ask their veterinarian what pet food is best, Kirkpatrick said.

Benesh, for one, said she wouldn’t mind spending a little more to ensure her cats’ food isn’t made with run-of-the-mill ingredients.

“That way what I’m getting is quality,” she said.

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