WASHINGTON – The tainted pet food scare, which has swelled into a serious crisis for animal lovers, now has spread to humans.
California officials have revealed that the contamination got into the food chain: About 45 state residents ate pork from hogs that consumed animal feed laced with melamine from China. Melamine is used to make plastics, but it also artificially boosts the protein level – and thus the price – of the glutens that go into food.
It was already fatal for some pets: Seventeen cats and dogs are confirmed dead, more have likely died without being reported, thousands have suffered kidney problems, and 57 brands of cat food and 83 of dog food have been recalled. On top of that, roughly 6,000 hogs will be destroyed because they ate tainted feed.
The effects of melamine on people are thought to be minimal, but no one really knows. Its consumption by humans is considered so improbable that no one has even studied it.
But they are studying it, now. What last month was a limited recall of canned pet food is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged public health scare, potentially overwhelming government agencies and raising troubling questions about U.S. food safety in the global economy and in the post-Sept. 11 era.
The Food and Drug Administration, criticized by some in Congress for responding too slowly, is struggling to catch up with the implications of the spread of melamine-contaminated glutens from China to hogs and the human food chain. The FDA is still trying to get its investigators into China, where a skeptical government only last week assented to investigators’ visa requests.
At a time when food imports are growing, and only 1 percent to 2 percent of food imports receive any government scrutiny, critics say the outbreak reveals the shortcomings of a weakened food safety bureaucracy, the inadequacy of existing regulations and the inability of the FDA, which has suffered significant cutbacks, to protect the food supply.
“They’re reactive, not proactive,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., whose House subcommittee on investigations last week held a hearing on food safety. If the problem was imported pet food additives, he asked, “How does it then get to hogs? They’ve known about this for some time. What did they do with it?”
In a statement, the FDA said that “food safety funding” for the year ending last Sept. 30 “was $376 million.” But funding for the agency’s Center for Food Safety has dropped from $48 million in 2003 to about $30 million in 2006, according to the center’s 2006 budget priority statement. Full-time jobs in the Center for Food Safety have also been cut from 950 in 2003 to about 820 in 2006, according to the budget statement.
The FDA’s real detective work may be just beginning. Having found many sources of contamination, investigators must now determine exactly how widespread the problem is and how it began.
The importer of the bad wheat gluten, ChemNutra Inc. of Las Vegas, contends that its Chinese manufacturer, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., illicitly added melamine to the gluten to boost the measurable protein level and thus the price of the shipment. If so, the FDA may find itself pursuing criminal charges against the Chinese company.
Scores of pet food brands have now been recalled in the U.S. for fear that melamine-contaminated glutens were used in their manufacture. They include canned and dry dog food and dog biscuits that are made in places as widely scattered as Utah, Missouri and South Carolina.
The FDA is also examining imported vegetable proteins earmarked for human products such as pizza, protein bars and baby formula. That investigation, still in its early stages, hasn’t uncovered any contaminated ingredients, but the agency, an FDA doctor said, wanted to “get ahead of the curve.”
The melamine-laced food reached hogs because surplus pet food – crumbled and broken food bits rejected as unsuitable for dogs or cats – was sent to hog farms and turned into feed. The FDA says bulk shipments of feed were delivered to hog farmers in California, Utah, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina. FDA officials said they were also concerned contaminated livestock feed may have been shipped to Missouri.
“It’s absolutely a terrible nightmare story,” said Eric Nelson, a Wisconsin feed specialist and president of the Association of American Feed Control Officers. “It just doesn’t seem to get any better, and I’m sure it’s not over.”
Even as the tainted wheat gluten cases have multiplied, the FDA has learned of another problem: Chinese rice protein. U.S. importer Wilber-Ellis told the agency that a single bag of rice protein that it had imported tested positive for the presence of melamine. Wilber-Ellis imported the rice from Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. in China’s Shandong Province. In the U.S., the protein went to five U.S. pet food makers in Utah, New York, Kansas and Missouri.
Nationwide, the FDA has only enough inspectors to check between 1 percent and 2 percent of the 8.9 million imported food shipments in 2006.
“We don’t have the resources or the capabilities to test every single shipment of every single food item that crosses into our country or into our state borders,” said Frank Busta, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense.
Stupak is one among a small number in Congress who for several years have pressed for stiffer food safety regulations. He said legislation likely to pass this year could include a provision giving the FDA authority to order food processors to recall questionable items.
Currently, the FDA can only issue mandatory recall orders for baby formula, while other government safety agencies have the ability to demand the recall of goods such as unsafe toys and tires.
“It took Menu Foods almost a whole month to do a full recall of the dog food,” Stupak said. “If they’re dragging their feet on the recall of dog food, in the meantime this tainted wheat gluten is going to hogs.”
The end of this pet food crisis appears more elusive than ever, shedding light on issues beyond the largely self-regulated pet food industry to America’s growing dependence on cheap imported ingredients from China and other countries, where safety precautions may be more lenient.
But just as troubling, federal officials and congressional critics of the FDA say, is the ease with which the bad gluten was passed along once in the U.S. Food and water safety were an issue of great concern following the Sept. 11 attacks, they say, but those concerns seem to have eroded.
America’s increasing reliance on low-cost food creates a complicated food distribution system, Busta said – and that leaves “many potential vulnerabilities.”