FDA Finds Chinese Food Producers Shut Down

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

American inspectors who arrived in China last week to investigate the two companies that exported tainted pet food ingredients found that the suspect facilities had been hastily closed down and cleaned up, federal officials said yesterday.

"There is nothing to be found. They are essentially shut down and not operating," said Walter Batts, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration's office of international programs.

Word of the American team's inability to conduct a firsthand inspection came as investigators in this country learned that as many as 198 U.S. fish farms and hatcheries may have received fish feed contaminated with the chemical melamine, which came from the same two Chinese companies.

Officials said they are trying to figure out how many of the hatcheries and farms received the chemically laced food and how many fish that were fed it may have been released -- either into streams or lakes for sportsmen or onto grocery store shelves.

Despite the revelations, officials sought yesterday to put a positive face on the two-month-old scandal, which includes the inadvertent sale of millions of chickens that ate the tainted feed and the ongoing quarantine of tens of thousands of hogs.

David Acheson, FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, said that despite appearances, U.S. investigators in China "have received good cooperation and support" from Chinese authorities.

And "consumers can feel reassured," he said, that according to a federal risk analysis, they face virtually no increased health risks from eating fish that may have been given contaminated feed.

That risk assessment, which used evidence-based assumptions about how melamine concentrates in animals and its effects on people, found a "2,000-fold safety margin," Acheson said -- meaning that even if the scientific assumptions used were considerably off base, the food would still be safe to eat.

Although the tainted ingredients were labeled as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, they have since been found to be wheat flour spiked with melamine, which gives flour the false chemical fingerprint of a high-protein product.

Batts, who was on the team that went to China after it became clear that many pets had been sickened or killed by the ingredients, said officials from the companies had been detained by Chinese authorities and the FDA team was not granted access to them.

Although the Americans were allowed into the facilities, he said, that access was not enlightening.

"There is nothing . . . that is available to be seen. Machinery is dismantled," Batts said.

Ingredient samples were retrieved by Chinese authorities and are being analyzed by what Batts called "an independent lab."

"We presume we will have access to those results," Batts said.

Asked what the Chinese authorities have done to justify describing them as cooperative, Batts said, "We are satisfied that they have shared with us documents that they obtained and anything they found during their investigation."

He also applauded the rapidity with which the Chinese embassy granted visas to FDA inspectors.

In the United States, meanwhile, federal and Oregon authorities said they have learned in recent days that melamine-tainted wheat had also been blended into fish food made in Canada.

Skretting Canada sold the fish food to a distributor in Longview, Wash., which distributes feed to close to 200 U.S. hatcheries and fish farms, Acheson said.

Hundreds of tests on food products intended for humans have been negative for melamine, adding credence to the belief, Acheson said, that the chemical is present only in animal feeds.

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