Today’s Update on the Pet Food Recall—4/30/2007

The New York Times has a story today claiming that the adulteration of animal feed to make it appear that it contains more protein than it actually does is a common, well-known practice in China—an open secret:

ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”

Melamine is at the center of a recall of 60 million packages of pet food, after the chemical was found in wheat gluten linked this month to the deaths of at least 16 pets and the illness of possibly thousands of pets in the United States.

This is no particular surprise. I predicted something of the sort in my near-daily coverage of this story here on The Glittering Eye weeks ago. To me the significance is that it’s being reported by The New York Times as its lead story in the online edition rather than being relegated to the back pages or the Health section. Where is it in the print edition?

The Chinese have steadfastly maintained that, while at least acknowledging that Chinese exporters supplied wheat gluten (and now rice and corn glutens) adulterated with melamine, the melamine had nothing to do with the deaths and injuries of pets in this country. That continues to be possible.

However, as I noted in my post, it’s at least plausible to suspect that melamine, combined with cyanuric acid (a product of decomposition of atrazine—a commonly used herbicide), may form crystals that can block the kidneys.

Canada is stopping vegetable proteins from China at the border:

Canada’s food inspectors have issued border lookouts for vegetable proteins coming from China to prevent melamine — a chemical used to make plastics — from contaminating the human food chain, CBC News has learned.

Inspectors will seize wheat gluten, soy proteins, corn glutens and rice proteins from China — ingredients already found to contain melamine and other contaminants in hundreds of pet-food products. The proteins are destined for human food.

Melamine, also used to make fertilizer, was blamed for the deaths of a number of cats and dogs in North America and making hundreds of pets ill.

“That’s why we have the border lookout for the ingredient, so that we can proactively assess any potential that the product is contaminated,” said Paul Mayers of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“We will subject the shipments to testing and the shipment will be held until the results of the test clear it in terms of the absence of the contaminant.”

Hat tip: Steve Jahnke

The official FDA position continues to be that there is no threat to the human food supply. I see no way they can determine this without knowing the scope of the problem which, according to the NYT story, appears pretty large. Why aren’t we taking measures like this in the U. S.? Isn’t it more important to preserve our health than make us feel good?

At this point we know or have good reason to believe the following:

  • Some number of cats and dogs have been killed or injured as a result of eating contaminated pet food. The the number of deaths may be in the thousands; the number of injuries in the tens of thousands.
  • Wheat, rice, and, possibly, corn gluten obtained from China has been found to be contaminated with melamine.
  • These products were sold as human-grade—suitable for human consumption.
  • Melamine shouldn’t be in animal or human food at all.
  • Adding melamine to vegetable products to boost its apparent protein content is active fraud—a crime.
  • The practice may be commonplace in China.

IMO we should be taking active measures against Chinese agricultural products immediately—at least until China can demonstrate that what we buy from their exporters is what it’s being sold as. This should also be added to the U. S.’s growing WTO case against China.

12 comments… add one
  • L Link

    In addition to its appearance on the online version, the story is being carried on the front page of the NYT print editions (both National and NY City Editions):

    The contamination of our pet and human food supply has highlighted that the FDA is ineffectual in monitoring the safety of our food. This is becoming an increasingly alarming situation, especially since, earlier this year the FDA had scheduled closures of a number of their field labs

  • I think that Michael van der Galien’s comment was pretty good: “Shoes from China—good. Food from China—not so good”. I agree that the FDA needs to be doing a lot more testing rather than less. But I also think that, at the very minimum, we need a national sourcing labelling law somewhat similar to the EU’s.

  • My guess is that it is something other than melamine. The number of deaths is far too low if melamine is indeed the culprit. Also melamine is considered to be a relatively benign monomer–i.e. you’d need to eat alot of it before it caused problems.

  • Ah, you are on top of things, Dave! This was front page (below the fold) in the Seattle PI this morning too I think.

    Steve, that may be true for melamine alone (that it is relatively benign), it’s the complex that it forms with the cyanuric acid that’s the problem. If you take two solutions, one of cyanuric acid and one of melamine and mix them together, you can watch the insoluble complex drop out of solution right in front of you. You can image what the two would do once the kidney starts concentrating waste.

  • I agree, Steve. I think that, from the point-of-view of the deaths and injuries that melamine is a red herring. In the lab tests done at Menu Foods back in February dogs died within days of eating the food. That doesn’t really support either the melamine or the melamine+cyanouric acid=crystals hypothesis.

    But, whatever is causing the cats and dogs to die, melamine doesn’t belong in human or animal food and, if it’s being done deliberately, it’s a crime.

  • jan, any thoughts on my atrazine speculation?

  • jan,

    I’m still not buying it. If that were the case we’d see 10,000s of dead pets and not just old and infirm pets, but young healthy ones. While the link to the petconnection is troubling, consider that there are estimated to be about 50 million dogs in the U.S. alone. Thus, finding 5,000 dead pets is not necessarily shocking (although it is sad). Even assuming that there are 5,000 dead dogs that is 0.01% of the population. How many canine deaths would we expect to see that had symptoms similar to the ones consistent with those associated with the recall?

    I agree melamine doesn’t belong in food and stopping the import of such products at the border is probably not a bad idea. It sure would hurt China and that would be a major impetus for change.

  • One of the reasons I think that we should be taking more highly-visible public actions (not to mention public officials talking it up) is that I think we’re more likely to get action from the Chinese with public shame rather than by quiet negotiations.

    That’s why piling this matter onto the WTO case is a good one, too.

  • Good point Dave. Shame can be a powerful motivator in many cultures and suddenly finding big ginormous cargo ships being denied entry into U.S. waters would be quite embarassing. Or making a public pronouncement like the WTO case as well.

    By the way, what do you feed your dogs?

  • Well, now we feed them Eagle Pack Holistic Select Lamb and Rice. We’re thrilled with the results so far. For ten years we fed them Sensible Choice Lamb and Rice. That hit the recall list and we were forced to dump what we had (we received a credit from our retailer) and find something else. Our feeling is that, while Royal Canin (producer of Sensible Choice) may have changed its sources it hasn’t changed the decision process that led it to using rice gluten imported from China to begin with and, until they do, they can’t be trusted.

  • Ahhh. I know what you mean about the recall and dumping food. We were feeding Eukanuba dry when the recall erupted. At first the news reports were sketchy and we were in full panic mode. Then a bit of research calmed us. Still we switched to Timberwolf and the dogs love it. They don’t use anything from China and they don’t use either Menu Foods or Diamond Products in producing their pet foods. And as an extra bonus my pit bull loves it. She tends to be a bit picky with dog foods, but loves this stuff. My rottweiler…well she’s a rottweiler and will eat anything that looks even vaguely like food.

  • This serves as evidence that we need to be even more aware of the source and ingredients of our pet foods. Most reputable pet food manufacturers are sharing this information on their web sites now. Many people are joining the local food movement (which I am a huge proponent of) and rediscovering the benefits of buying locally produced food. Should we follow the same rule when it comes to the diet of our pets?

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