More details have emerged about events leading to the major recall of pet food and about the importation of ingredients from China that contained melamine, an adulterant that seems to have an association with kidney problems in cats and dogs.
Some of the specifics came to light during an April 24 hearing at the House of Representatives regarding the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to ensure food safety and security. The witnesses testified about recent recalls of human and pet foods.
"Foodborne illnesses and pet food contamination demonstrate serious flaws in our food safety network," said Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations within the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
"With more and more of our food, fruits, produce, and vegetables being imported, there appears to be less and less government inspection or oversight and no enforceable safety and health standards."
Later that week, the FDA announced that cyanuric acid as well as melamine had adulterated ingredients from China that went into pet food. University of Guelph researchers said they found that melamine and cyanuric acid can react to form crystals. Furthermore, the chemical composition of the crystals they created was identical to the composition of crystals from animals that ate the food. By the end of the week, the FDA was detaining all vegetable protein products coming from China.
On May 8, the FDA announced that the ingredients containing melamine—which bore the labels "wheat gluten" and "rice protein concentrate"—were actually wheat flour.
The witnesses at the House hearing who testified about pet food were the chief executive officers of the first manufacturer to issue a recall, of the first importer that recalled an ingredient because of melamine, and of a large veterinary hospital that treated sick animals.
Time line of a recall
On March 16, Menu Foods started the string of recalls. Paul K. Henderson, Menu's CEO, submitted a time line of events leading to the recall.
On Feb. 22 and 28, Menu received complaints regarding illness in two cats that ate food from the manufacturer. The veterinarians who treated the cats said the animals had access to various contaminants. About March 5, Menu received a separate complaint reporting the death of a cat.
On March 6 and 7, Menu learned of two more sick cats. A company that Menu retained to perform routine, quarterly palatability studies reported the death of one cat and the euthanasia of two other cats in a panel of 20. The cats were eating products from Menu and other manufacturers, and they had been in taste tests for another manufacturer. The study administrator reported no problems with a second panel.
One ingredient common to all the incidents was "wheat gluten" from a new source. Menu stopped using the ingredient from ChemNutra, which imports from China.
On March 9, the study administrator reported the euthanasia of four more cats from the first panel and two cats from the second panel.
Menu identified seven materials, including "wheat gluten," common to all incidents. Tests did not reveal any contaminants in the ingredients or products.
On March 13, Iams contacted Menu to report customer complaints about cats developing signs of kidney disease after eating food that Menu manufactured for Iams. On March 14, Menu and Iams shared information about the situation. That evening, Iams said it intended to recall some of the Iams cat food that Menu manufactured.
On March 15, a customer contacted Menu to report that one of her indoor dogs died of renal failure and the other four became ill after eating products from the manufacturer. Menu also learned that several dogs in a taste test became ill.
That afternoon, Menu notified the FDA of its decision to recall most products containing "wheat gluten" from ChemNutra.
Tests eventually detected melamine, usually a substance for the production of plastics and fertilizers, in pet food and then in "wheat gluten" that ChemNutra imported from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development in China. On April 2, ChemNutra issued a recall.
During the hearing, Henderson called for an increase in U.S. government inspections of foreign suppliers. He noted that Menu's U.S. and Canadian plants must qualify to export food to Europe by passing annual inspections. If a similar system had existed for U.S. inspections of all foreign suppliers, he said, it could have impacted Menu's situation.
Henderson supports the idea that foreign suppliers should be accredited, certified, and inspected to transact business with the United States.
"Where you're getting into imports from China, it would have been critical," Henderson said. "It would have been a very good, positive step, that somebody would have inspected that plant before they were allowed to import into the United States."
Henderson and Stephen S. Miller, CEO of ChemNutra, testified that they believe someone added melamine to the "wheat gluten" on purpose. Melamine is high in nitrogen, which could increase the protein reading during analysis of an ingredient.
"We believe it was because of fraud in China that this happened," Miller said. "Apparently, they weren't expecting it to be discovered, or maybe there was less of a chance if it was pet food. They knew it was going to pet food."
Surveillance of animal health
Dr. Anthony DeCarlo, the CEO of Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, N.J., also testified during the House hearing.
Representative Frank J. Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, visited Red Bank Veterinary Hospital to gather facts about how the hospital was handling cases that veterinarians suspected had connections to the recall. Representative Pallone plans to introduce legislation to improve regulatory oversight of pet foods, including the creation of a central reporting system for animal health problems.
Dr. DeCarlo said, "What we need as veterinarians is a better mechanism in place to track unusual occurrences—to be able to get information to an appropriate centralized reporting agency and then back out to the veterinary community in a timely manner."
Dr. DeCarlo said veterinarians have gathered information about the recent recalls mostly from the Web sites of the AVMA, state veterinary medical associations, manufacturers of pet food, and the media. He said the veterinary community does not have the resources to add to and retrieve information in a timely manner, though.
His suggestion is to create a network of sentinel veterinary hospitals for reporting and surveillance. He said data collection should span general practices, specialty clinics, teaching hospitals, and animal shelters.
A webcast of the hearing and the testimony that witnesses submitted in writing are available by visiting http://energycommerce.house.gov/cmte_mtgs, clicking on Hearings Held in the 110th Congress, then scrolling down the page to Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
In March and April
the AVMA Web site recorded thousands of page views daily of information regarding the recent recalls of pet food—with more than 100,000 total views of the recall pages on some days. Page views for the entire AVMA Web site jumped from 1.3 million in February to 2.3 million in March and 3.2 million in April.