By Bill Branigin and Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 31, 2007
The Food and Drug Administration expanded its investigation yesterday to a dry pet-food maker, and a national retailer recalled one variety of dry cat food, as the mystery of what has sickened and killed an untold number of cats and dogs deepened.
The toxin melamine, not the previously suspected chemical used in rat poison, was found in pet food samples, in imported wheat gluten and in the urine and tissue of ill pets, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. He said melamine is used in fertilizer in Asia and in plastic products but is not registered as a fertilizer in the United States.
Sundlof said melamine is "an ingredient that should not be in pet food at any level," but he warned that the FDA is not fully certain that the chemical caused pet illnesses.
Hill's Pet Nutrition voluntarily recalled one variety of its dry cat food -- Prescription Diet m/d Feline -- because it was provided by the suspected supplier. None of its other products were contaminated, said Hill's, a Colgate-Palmolive company.
The retailer said it was taking the action because for two months in early 2007, wheat gluten for the product was provided by the same company that supplied Menu Foods, which recalled 95 wet varieties of its pet food two weeks ago.
The FDA said it has received more than 8,000 phone calls about sickened pets. The agency hasn't been able to confirm more than 14 or 15 pet deaths, Sundlof said, but pet owners and veterinarians in the United States and Canada are reporting larger numbers.
Paul Pion, co-founder of the Veterinary Information Network, which counts 30,000 veterinarians and students as members, said that, unsolicited, members reported "well over 500 illnesses and 104 deaths."
"The whole point is that it's more than 16," he said yesterday in a phone interview. "It's always hard to tell what's a panic-induced [report]. . . . The FDA has gotten very far in a very short time. It doesn't happen like it happens on CSI."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have asked the FDA commissioner for an analysis of the agency's oversight of the pet food makers and of actions the agency has taken since the initial recall was announced.
FDA officials declined to name the pet food supplier pending the outcome of the investigation. Government investigators were in a manufacturing plant yesterday looking for signs of whether the melamine-tainted wheat gluten was used in dry pet food products.
Sundlof pledged that as soon as anything definitive is known, the public will be alerted.
Wheat gluten, a source of vegetable protein, is also used in some human foods. Sundlof said the FDA is not aware that any of the contaminated gluten went into human food but said he could not confirm this "with 100 percent certainty."
The head of Menu Foods, the Mississauga, Ontario, maker of the recalled pet food, said it had dropped the U.S. supplier of the imported ingredient. Chief executive Paul Henderson said any food his company made after March 6 is safe.
Two weeks ago, Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans and pouches of "cuts-and-gravy" moist dog and cat food produced at its plant in Emporia, Kan., between Dec. 3 and March 6. The products are sold in the United States, Canada and Mexico, the FDA said.
The recall has affected such national brands as Procter & Gamble's Iams and Eukanuba and Nestle SA's Purina Mighty Dog, and others, including some sold at Wal-Mart and Safeway.
Pet owners across the country are worried. PetConnection.com, a Web site with a database of affected pets, said that as of yesterday, owners reported 2,400 deaths due to contaminated food, though no proof was required to make the complaints.
The activist organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for an immediate recall of all dry dog foods until they can be chemically tested. "What we don't know seems to be of significantly broader scope than what we do know," Bruce Friedrich, a PETA vice president, said at a Washington news conference yesterday.
Jennifer Trujillo, spokeswoman for the Friendship Hospital for Animals in Northwest Washington, said that pet owners are calling in increasing numbers and that veterinarians are urging owners to get complete diagnostic tests and to avoid panicking. "We see [kidney disease] all the time, and we know how to treat it," she said.
Veterinarians Sarah Bowman and Wendy Knight, co-owners of the City Paws Animal Hospital near Logan Circle, said that many owners have inquired about the recall and that one cat has had kidney failure.
"There's fear among pet owners about dry food," Knight said. "What we're trying to do is inform our pet owners where to go to get up-to-date information and advocate what symptoms to watch for."
Symptoms include increased consumption of water, vomiting, lethargy or sudden lack of appetite. Quick treatment can help.