Pet Food Chemical Was From 2 Firms

The federal government has tested 700 samples as part of its investigation of pet food tainted by the chemical melamine.
The federal government has tested 700 samples as part of its investigation of pet food tainted by the chemical melamine. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

The federal government's investigation into tainted pet food has grown to include tests of 700 samples, and all of the approximately 400 of those that have turned up positive for the chemical contaminant melamine came from just two companies in China, Food and Drug Administration officials said yesterday.

All brands of Chinese imported vegetable proteins, the ingredient at the heart of the scandal, are being held by U.S. border officials pending tests to prove they are free of the industrial chemical. Authorities are looking into thousands of reports of pet illnesses or deaths that are suspected of being linked to melamine-tainted wheat gluten and rice protein.

The investigation is far from complete, but the latest findings suggest that only a limited number of importers have been foisting the tainted ingredients on U.S. pet food makers, said David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection.

In China, Mao Lijun, general manager of Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., one of the two companies implicated, is being held by authorities in the coastal province where the company is based, according to local police officials. Mao told The Washington Post last week that he believed the company had no responsibility for the tainted wheat gluten because it had never exported any to the United States or Canada but that Xuzhou Anying was cooperating with the investigation. A Xuzhou Anying foreign sales representative reached yesterday said she knew nothing about Mao's detention. U.S. investigators recently arrived in China to inspect that company's plant and one operated by Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co.

Also yesterday, Menu Foods of Streetsville, Ontario, near Toronto -- whose tainted pet food first brought the scandal to light in March -- announced an expansion of its recall to include some varieties of pet food that were not made with the tainted ingredient but may have become "cross-contaminated" in its facilities.

Tens of millions of packages of more than 100 brands have been swept up in the recall. (The list is at http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/petfoodrecall.)

Adding to the consternation over China's export of tainted foods, officials in Mississippi and Alabama said yesterday that they have ordered all stores in those states to stop selling catfish from China after multiple samples were found to be illegally contaminated with antibiotics.

Last month, officials with Alabama's Department of Agriculture and Industries announced it had tested 20 samples from more than 200,000 pounds of imported Chinese catfish and found 14 of them contaminated with fluoroquinolone antibiotics.

The FDA in 1997 banned the use of those antibiotics in food animals or imports after tests indicated that their use was leading to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The drugs are still used in some countries to prevent infection and promote growth in farm-raised fish grown in crowded conditions.

Although federal officials said the fluoroquinolone test is of questionable accuracy at levels less than 5 parts per billion (ppb), Alabama and other states have a "zero tolerance" standard, state officials said. Catfish that tested positive in Alabama had levels that ranged from less than 1 ppb to more than 10 ppb.

That discovery prompted Alabama's agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks, to issue a statewide "stop sale" order for all catfish imported from China -- which in turn prompted officials in Mississippi to conduct similar tests on four store-bought Chinese catfish, all of which were positive.

Both states have major catfish industries that in recent years have been threatened by cheap Chinese imports. The latest round of testing (others more than a year ago also came up positive) comes as Alabama lawmakers are poised to consider legislation, supported by local growers, that would require "country of origin" labeling for catfish sold in restaurants. Such labeling is already required for store-bought catfish.

Roger Barlow, president of the Catfish Institute in Jackson, Miss., and executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America, both trade groups, said the fraction of the nation's market for catfish that is supplied by domestic farm-raised fillets has dropped 30 percent since the peak in 2003. By contrast, he said, Chinese imports of catfish in the first two months of 2007 were more than 700 percent higher than in the same period last year.

"It's what we term the Asian invasion," Barlow said. Tests on domestic catfish have repeatedly come up negative for fluoroquinolones, he said, and U.S. catfish-farming techniques have garnered praise from many environmental groups.

Correspondent Ariana Eunjung Cha in Shanghai contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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