Melamine-Tainted Feed Has Entered Human Food Chain
WASHINGTON, DC, May 2, 2007 (ENS) - A chemical used to make plastics that contaminated pet food, killing at least 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs across the United States has now been detected in the human food chain. Melamine has been found in hog feed in six states and in chicken feed consumed by at least three million chickens.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Tuesday that the same pet food, made with contaminated wheat gluten from China, was mixed into chicken feed used on farms in Indiana.
A rice protein concentrate imported from China contaminated with melamine and melamine-related compounds was fed to pigs. Federal investigators are looking into how hog feed was contaminated in six states - California, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah.
To deal with these and other food safety problems, both domestic and international, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Tuesday created a new position - assistant commissioner for food protection.
Dr. David Acheson, formerly chief medical officer with the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, was appointed to fill the new role. As a first task, the FDA said he will develop "an agency-wide, visionary strategy for food safety and defense."
"We still have no evidence of harm to humans associated with any of the processed products from the swine that were fed the contaminated feed," Acheson said. "We believe the likelihood of illness from such exposure is extremely low. We also have no evidence of reports of harm to the swine themselves."
"One of the reasons we believe that this effect is very low on humans is due to the dilution effect, insomuch that the hog feed is only made up to a small degree of the contaminated pet food," he said.
Hogs excrete the melamine in their urine, Dr. Acheson explained, and it is not known to be stored in the animals' tissue.
"Even if it were in the muscle tissue to some low extent, pork is not consumed to a high degree in the human diet, unlike pets which may be eating the same pet food exclusively," he said.
Like the swine, the agencies say they have no evidence that the poultry that ate the contaminated feed came to any harm. Based on federal investigators' discussions with farms and feed mills, they estimate the suspect chicken feed was composed of five percent contaminated wheat gluten.
Thirty broiler poultry farms and eight breeder poultry farms in Indiana received contaminated feed in early February and fed it to poultry within days of receiving it. All of the broilers believed to have been fed contaminated product have since been processed and sold into the market.
Living animals that were fed the tainted feed are being quarantined by state order or voluntarily held by the owners. The USDA is offering compensation for "depopulation and disposal" of both swine and poultry that have been fed contaminated products. Because they believe human consumption of the meat from animals that ate the melamine-contaminated feed is low, the agencies are not initiating any recall of meat products associated with these animals at this time.
The agencies said Thursday that they are not aware of any human illness that has occurred from exposure to melamine or its by-products. "While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention systems would have limited ability to detect subtle problems due to melamine and melamine-related compounds, no problems have been detected to date," they said.
Two FDA field inspectors and a senior international policy specialist are in China investigating how the melamine came to be in the pet food in the first place.
"We also secured an agreement to have full cooperation from the Chinese government as we investigate this matter," said Dr. Walter Batts with the FDA's Office of International Programs.
The FDA and the USDA are working together to develop a series of new tests to measure melamine and melamine-related compounds in muscle tissue such as that from hogs and from poultry.
In his new position, Dr. Acheson will also be responsible for other food safety issues, such as the spinach crisis last fall, which he investigated.
In March, he told an FDA food safety hearing, "The country's food supply is no safer than it was in September when more than 200 people were sickened and at least three people died after eating spinach contaminated by E. coli."
Dr. Acheson said that without changes made at farms and in processing plants, he would not be surprised if there is another outbreak linked to leafy greens this year.
"Why should 2007 be any different, unless some changes are made?" he said. "I hope not, but I'm a pragmatist."
Now Dr. Acheson is in charge of initiating changes that could improve food safety in the United States.