By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
Federal and state authorities have identified 6,000 hogs in seven states that may have consumed contaminated pet food or pet food byproducts, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday.
A maximum of about 300 of the animals may have already entered the human food supply, but the rest of the hogs have been quarantined and are slated to be euthanized, Agriculture Department officials said.
Officials said they are also looking into the possibility that some chickens may have eaten chow contaminated by the pet food, which they believe was tainted with chemicals imported from China.
The disclosures are the latest in a string of recent surprises that have brought home to many Americans how complex and interconnected are the supply chains linking imported pet food ingredients, farm animal chow and food for human consumption.
Officials emphasized that the human health risks of eating pork from animals fed the contaminated food are very low. The decision to keep those animals off the market -- and to reimburse farmers for the losses -- was made in the interest of extreme prudence, they said.
FDA and Agriculture Department experts revealed preliminary findings that may explain how low doses of the prime contaminant -- the industrial chemical melamine, which is considered only mildly toxic -- may have caused the deaths of some pets. A second contaminant found in the pet food, cyanuric acid, when combined with melamine, appears to prompt the formation of crystals in urine, they said. The crystals can cause kidney failure.
It is unclear how the two chemicals found their way into pet food, but many experts suspect they were added intentionally so that test results of the protein content of the food would be falsely elevated. Both chemicals are rich in nitrogen, which is the element that the protein tests measure.
China, for the first time, acknowledged that wheat and rice protein sent to the United States contained an industrial chemical known as melamine. But the Chinese government said that there is no "clear evidence" that it led to the poisoning or death of the pets.
FDA officials said the number of pets that the agency has confirmed dead from the contamination remains in the high teens -- far fewer than the hundreds claimed by others -- but they conceded that they are not making an effort to track that number. Their main concern, they said, is to block the entry of more contaminated ingredients into the country and to stem the spread of contaminated food products already in the country.
That effort led to the recognition that some pet food manufacturers that had used tainted ingredients had sold pet food waste or scraps to eight hog producers in California, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah.
There is also a chance that a mill in Missouri bought some of the product and fed it to chickens, they said -- a possibility still under investigation. Having received the paperwork from China letting them get visas, FDA inspectors are preparing to go there to inspect some plants, officials said.
Under federal law, farmers are not required to destroy the potentially contaminated hogs. But the Agriculture Department has informed them that the animals will not get the agency's stamp of approval, which is required for the meat to be sold.
Daniel McChesney, director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said that he did not know how much the government would reimburse pork producers, but that he is confident that the animals will be appropriately exterminated.