Tainted Wheat Flour – Not Gluten – Responsible for Pet Deaths, Food Recalls

Tainted wheat flour mislabeled as gluten and shipped from two companies in China has sickened pets across the United States and Canada. Ongoing federal investigations into shipments of the products that contained melamine and melamine metabolites have been traced to food animal and fish feed operations in the United States.

Fish feed, added to the recall list last week, affected aquaculture firms, not pet fish feed, said one Food and Drug Administration (FDA) representative. In addition to increased surveillance of Chinese imports, government officials have launched domestic assignments to assess other exporters and to test all vegetable gluten sent to the United States, as well as all pet food exported from China.

Investigators with the FDA describe the testing and screening of various products as a proactive measure to ensure consumer safety. They did not specify any areas of interest or the duration of the testing, but said there are seven testing centers in the United States. 

Fish feed (not fish meal as originally announced) was added to the list of recalled products after investigators tracked shipments from two Chinese companies implicated in the melamine debacle to Canada. The two companies – Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. – shipped wheat flour (labeled as gluten) to Canada, where fish feed was made and shipped to the United States. Tainted ingredients used in pet foods have also affected food animals; however, federal officials say the risk to humans who consume the meat is low

The Skretting Company in Canada accepted Chinese shipments (labeled wheat gluten or rice concentrate) to produce fish feed, which may have been sent to 198 US consignees (companies) and at least two American commercial fisheries, said Michael Rogers, director of the FDA’s field investigations. Skretting issued a voluntary recall of the affected batch last week.

FDA officials did not release the names of companies affected by the fish feed recall, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that at least seven Oregon hatcheries received shipments and FDA officials said that commercial firms in Washington and Hawaii had received the feed.

From a scientific perspective, melamine is a water soluble compound that is excreted in high concentrations by the kidney and does not accumulate in body fat and muscle, said Stephen Sundloff, DVM, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. Therefore, the risk of bioaccumulation is low, he explained. 

Since March, when melamine (a chemical used in plastics) and melamine metabolites were first detected in pet foods, about 5,500 pet food products have been recalled. Concerns of cross-contamination of other pet food brands that were not initially included in the recalls have contributed to the expanding recall list. 

The FDA has received more than 18,000 calls from consumers regarding the pet food recall. An FDA Import Alert cites that 3,000 pets may have died from eating recalled food, but officials clarified that they have not been able to substantiate those reports and may not have all of the information tallied until this fall. 

Rogers, who clarified the fact that the FDA cannot announce a total number of pets affected at this point, added that half of the pet owners who contacted the FDA alleged an animal death

Pet Food Recall: An International Story
The two Chinese companies responsible for shipping tainted ingredients to the United States and Canada are no longer in business and officials have been detained, according to David Acheson, MD, assistant commissioner of food protection for the FDA. 

Wheat flour, which contained gluten, melamine and melamine metabolites, was mislabeled as gluten and exported to US suppliers by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co., both based in China. Shipment records indicate that the two companies may have been exporting the tainted flour to the United States since 2006, Acheson said.

Acheson acknowledged that contaminated pet food was used in animal feed for poultry and swine, and added fish meal to the list on May 8, 2007. 

In other recall-related news, Menu Foods and Chenango Valley Pet Foods expanded product recalls on May 3, 2007, due to suspected cross-contamination at several facilities that used the contaminated wheat flour in products. An updated list of affected products is posted online

FDA officials uncovered the link to fish feed while looking through ChemNutra files, Acheson said. Tainted shipments of wheat flour were brokered by ChemNutra and sent to Canada. The names of companies – and fisheries – that used contaminated fish feed from Skretting were not released by government officials who said that fish, poultry and swine that consumed contaminated feed would not pose a human health risk because of the diluted nature of the chemical at the point of human consumption. Information about the assessment, conducted by five federal agencies, was released May 7, 2007. 

FDA officials tracked tainted pet food to animal farms in at least eight states. On May 15, 2007, animals were released for slaughter after tests showed that there would be low risk to humans who ate the meat.