WASHINGTON — Within a week of finalizing its report on the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in spinach that claimed the lives of three persons, the Food and Drug Administration found itself enmeshed in yet another contaminant scare, this time involving pet food. Imported wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, a chemical associated with plastics manufacture and fertilizer, was found in certain pet foods manufactured and distributed in the United States and Canada, resulting in product recalls, panic among pet owners and even a Senate hearing. The incident raised questions about the effectiveness of U.S. inspection of imported foods and food ingredients in general and whether the F.D.A. has sufficient resources to enable it to discharge its inspection functions to the public’s expectations.
The pet food scare broke out March 16, when Menu Foods, Streetsville, Ont., issued a voluntary recall of certain wet and in-gravy dog and cat food products manufactured between Dec. 3 and March 6 at its Kansas and New Jersey plants. Menu manufactures foods for other pet food companies as well. These companies issued voluntary recalls of their own of products made for them by Menu. The company later revised its recall to include foods manufactured from Nov. 8 to March 6.
The F.D.A. on March 30 indicated melamine was the contaminant, and it found melamine in wheat gluten imported by ChemNutra of Las Vegas from a Chinese company named Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. of Wangdien. The same day the F.D.A. banned the import of wheat gluten from that company and stepped up inspection of all wheat gluten imports from China.
The identification of the source of the contaminated wheat gluten generated a second wave of recalls, this time including some dry products, especially biscuit treats. Six pet food companies have recalled products, and ChemNutra has recalled wheat gluten it imported from the Chinese supplier.
The latest expansion of the scare occurred last week, when Menu confirmed some of the contaminated wheat gluten was used at its manufacturing plant in Streetsville, resulting in recalls of some pet foods in Canada, including foods distributed only through veterinarians.
Response to the pet food scare on Capitol Hill was loud. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, both outspoken advocates of a single food safety agency, wrote Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, F.D.A. commissioner, asking for an analysis of the agency’s response to the outbreak. Senator Durbin later announced a hearing on pet food contamination before the Senate Committee on Appropriation’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies under the chairmanship of Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. That hearing was held April 12.
"Many cats, dogs and other pets, considered members of the family, are now suffering as a result of a deeply flawed pet food inspections system," Senator Durbin said. "The F.D.A.’s response to this situation has been tragically slow. Pet owners deserve answers. The uncertainty about what is safe to feed their pets has gone on far too long. I want to learn exactly when the F.D.A. knew about the contamination, who is inspecting pet food manufacturing plants, and whether we need to force the F.D.A. to update their regulations to protect our pets. Most importantly, I want to hear how the F.D.A. is going to work to resolve the current crisis and ensure this doesn’t happen again."
Peter Barton Hutt, senior counsel, Covington & Burling, Washington, said hearings likely would be an occasion for hand wringing and criticism of the F.D.A. Mr. Hutt pointed out because of limited resources, the F.D.A. must set priorities, and safety of pet food, necessarily, falls toward the bottom of the list. The F.D.A. will be told it has to do more about ensuring the safety of pet food, Mr. Hutt said, but with limited resources and inspection personnel, increased inspection of pet food could require less inspection of food for human consumption, which would be unacceptable.
Perhaps a greater concern is the F.D.A.’s ability to adequately inspect food ingredient imports. Wheat gluten imports have expanded dramatically in recent years, as lowered tariffs made it more economical for additional foreign manufacturers to ship product to the U.S. The same could be said for many other foods and food ingredients.
Wheat gluten is manufactured with an eye to its use as an ingredient of foods for human consumption. There is no separate grade of wheat gluten for pet food, according to the Pet Foods Institute. The F.D.A. affirmed there was no evidence imported wheat gluten contaminated with melamine has entered the human food supply.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, April 17, 2007, starting on Page 24. Click