Considering that all the nearly 100 brands in the pet food recall use the same factory, is there any reason to pay more for premium?
Of course there is, premium pet food makers say.
They say that they require the factory to use high-quality -- and thus more expensive -- ingredients, and that their recipes are developed after extensive testing and research.
OK, but does that mean the higher price tag is worth it?
Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary nutrition at Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, isn't so sure. Your veterinarian probably knows best, he said, though there is another way to check, simply by observing how your pet looks and acts after eating.
"I see absolutely no problem with having a choice," he said, "but I don't think the evidence is strong that there is a correlation between price and safety or price and nutrition."
Menu Foods of Ontario, Canada, which initiated the recall March 16 after reports of kidney failure and deaths, has said it uses as many as 1,400 recipes to make the foods that come from its factories.
Labels including Purina and Procter & Gamble's Iams and Eukanuba brands said their pet foods were made from high-quality stock that not all brands would choose. Purina, owned by Nestle, which makes 99% of its products in its own factories, specifies the quality or grade of ingredients that must be used to make its products, spokesman Keith Schopp said.
Pet food is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Pet foods aren't required to have "pre-market approval" by the FDA, although the agency's guidelines say it is supposed to ensure that ingredients are safe and appropriate.
The FDA says it generally investigates pet food-making facilities only when it has a good reason. The first time the FDA inspected Menu Foods' Emporia, Kan., plant -- where the tainted foods were produced -- was after Menu Foods alerted authorities to the contamination problem.
The FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine regulates pet food labels, in some cases following rules established by the Assn. of American Feed Control Officials.
In addition to guaranteeing certain nutrients, the FDA requires that pet food makers:
* Use at least 95% of an ingredient that is part of the name. So a food called "Beef for Dogs" or "Tuna Cat Food" must contain at least 95% beef or tuna, not including the "condiments" and water used to make it.
* List ingredients in order of weight. When two ingredients are used in a name -- FDA guidelines use the example "Lobster and Salmon for Cats" -- the first ingredient must be dominant, meaning there has to be more lobster in that can than salmon.
* Use at least 25% of an ingredient that is in the name if it also is called "dinner," "platter," "entree," "formula" or something similar. That means that only a quarter of "Beef Dinner for Dogs" has to be beef.
Animal activists have called the rules confusing and misleading. Some charge that commercially manufactured pet food can contain meat from sick or diseased animals and other inferior ingredients.
But Ron Faoro, president of the California Veterinary Medical Assn. and a veterinarian in Santa Barbara, said he had found most commercial pet food to be safe and healthful.
"Pet food in general is of far higher quality than what people think," Faoro said. "People think it's ground-up lungs and claws and beaks. That may exist with the real low-end generic foods, but I think that [other] foods are expensive because they do put good-quality ingredients into them."
Home-cooked pet meals also have their perils, because they can fail to offer proper nutritional balance, said Meri Stratton-Phelps, a veterinarian and owner of All Creatures Veterinary Nutrition Consulting in West Sacramento. Raw food diets, she added, have been associated with salmonella poisoning.
"Nothing is 100% safe," she said.