- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

The largest pet-food recall in U.S. history is forcing consumers to use a more discerning eye when buying their pets’ food.

For Natural Balance, a healthy pet-food company in California, sales have dramatically increased since last month when the recall began.

“We’ve seen a 40 percent bump in sales,” said Joey Herrick, president of Natural Balance. “The ultra premium stuff is taking off.”

Premium pet foods, which contains high amounts of protein from meat products such as fish and chicken, generally cost three times as much as non-premium products.

But last month when the Food and Drug Administration revealed that wheat gluten imported from China was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics and other industrial products, consumers decided it was time to pay for security.

“People are starting to read labels,” said Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for PetSmart, a leading retailer of pet food and supplies. “We’re finding an increased interest in the premium brands, which cost more but are considered healthier.”

For example, a 40-pound bag of standard Pedigree brand dog food costs $16 at PetSmart while a 40-pound bag of premium dog food made by Blue Buffalo, a healthy pet food company, runs $39

Products from 100 pet food brands are currently under the recall. Menu Foods, in Canada, a major manufacturer of brand- and private-label wet pet food, has recalled 90 brands of its “cuts and gravy” style pet food found in cans and pouches. Menu Foods last month asked retailers to immediately remove all impacted varieties of wet pet food as a result of the FDA’s findings.

Until recently, the recall had been limited to wet pet food sold under a variety of brand names, but Thursday the FDA warned consumers not to feed their pets 22 types of dog biscuits manufactured by Sunshine Mills, in Alabama, because these products also contain melamine.

Also this week, a dry cat food was recalled for the first time when Hill’s Pet Nutrition, in Kansas, found that its Prescription Diet Feline dry food included contaminated wheat gluten.

The FDA has confirmed at least 15 pet deaths, while anecdotal reports suggest that hundreds of cats and dogs may have died of kidney failure from the tainted food. For example, in Oregon, there are 106 suspected cases of animals becoming ill after eating recalled food and 38 deaths, according to a public health veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Human Services.

At Petco, a specialty retailer of premium pet food, consumers are buying organic pet food. Makers of organic pet food, whose products are untouched by preservatives, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, include Natural Balance, Caster & Pollux Pet Works in Oregon and Natura Pet Products in California.

“Since the recall, there has been an increase in requests from our distributors for product, which means retailers are running out,” said Shelly Guntan, president of Caster & Pollux Pet Works.

Ms. Guntan said the company has reached out to pet owners with information on organic food. “As a result of concerns with what their pets are eating these days, we think there is a movement toward natural and organic products,” she said.

At $14 million in sales last year, organic pet food remains a tiny fraction — 0.09 percent — of pet food sales that totaled $15 billion last year.

Organic pet food can be even more expensive than premium products. Ms. Guntan said that the suggested retail price of a 15-pound bag of Organix, the company’s organic dog food, is $31.99.

But Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute in the District, says people will return to the products they are familiar with.

“I think they’re starting to make their way back to the pet food they’ve always purchased,” he said. “People are getting the message that the recall was a really small percentage of the market.”

Although the recall affected more than 60 million containers of wet pet food by Menu alone, it represents about 1 percent of pet food in the United States.

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