Melamine Scare Widens to Fish Feed

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2007 (ENS) - Animal feed contaminated with melamine has been fed to fish being raised for market in U.S. aquaculture operations, federal food safety officials said Tuesday. The contamination of fish feed is in addition to the contamination of chicken and hog feed as well as pet food, which has killed thousands of dogs and cats in the United States.

Melamine is an chemical used to produce a fire-resistant plastic with many household and industrial applications.

In addition, testing by U.S. government scientists shows the melamine found in animal feed was a contaminant of flour, not of wheat gluten and rice protein as authorities had previously believed.

Dr. David Acheson, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's assistant commissioner for food protection, told reporters by teleconference Tuesday that the mixup was due to a "misrepresentation" by the Chinese sources of the feed additive.


Dr. David Acheson is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's top food protection official. (Photo courtesy FDA)
"we have discovered that these products, labeled wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, are, we believe, mislabeled, and that they actually contain wheat flour that is contaminated with the melamine and melamine-related compounds," Dr. Acheson said.

The Food and Drug Administration, FDA, has identified the Chinese supplier, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company, as directly involved in the distribution of the contaminated food, Acheson said. Another Chinese company, Binzhou Futian Biological Technology, is under review.

China's quality control watchdog announced on Tuesday that these two Chinese companies exported melamine-contaminated wheat gluten and rice protein. The managers from both companies have been arrested.

None of the contaminated products have been used as ingredients directly in the human food supply, Acheson said, and no new set of ingredients has been found.

"As part of our ongoing tracebacks and trace-forwards, trying to understand where this contaminated wheat gluten may have gone," Dr. Acheson said, "we learned that a portion of the mislabeled wheat gluten from the Chinese firm was sent to Canada and when in Canada was used to manufacture fishmeal, and that that fishmeal was then imported back into the United States for use in feeding fish in certain industrial aquaculture type situations."

Farmed fish are fed small, nutrient-dense, dry pellets. Different feeds are used depending on the life stage of the fish. (Photo courtesy Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
The fish feed was made by Skretting of Vancouver, British Columbia and sold by a subsidiary, Bio-Oregon, which specializes in feed for young salmon, trout and steelhead.

Skretting officials said Tuesday, "Although, melamine is not thought to be toxic to fish and does not bio-accumulate, Skretting is taking the precautionary step of voluntarily recalling all feed related to the batch in question." To date, Skretting has received no complaints related to unusual fish health issues.

"We know of a number of firms that received this fishmeal," Acheson said, "and our investigators are as we speak getting out there to those firms to determine just exactly what they are doing with the fish that were fed this fishmeal."

In testimony today before the House Committee on Agriculture, Dr. Acheson tried to reassure legislators that the risk of illness to people who have consumed the animals that ate the contaminated feed is very low.

He said the U.S. government has analyzed the potential human impact of processed pork and poultry products that had been affected by the Chinese imports and is confident that the food supply in the United States is safe.

"At this point, we have no evidence of harm to humans associated with the processed pork and poultry products," said Acheson. He said the investigation continues and testing is still going on, and appropriate action will be taken if new evidence warrants it.

A risk assessment completed by five different U.S. agencies found that even under the most extreme scenarios, the potential exposure from consuming meat from hogs and chickens known to have been fed animal feed containing melamine "was about 2,500 times lower than the dose considered safe," said Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator of the Office of Field Operation of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, who also testified.

The low risk is due to the high dilution of the contaminant, first discovered in some pet food in the United States. Some of the pet food unknowingly was sent as salvaged feed to various hog, poultry and fish farms throughout the country, the Acheson and Petersen said.

"Melamine was found in only one ingredient of pet food, which was only part of the total feed given to some livestock. In addition, melamine and its analogs are not known to accumulate in the animals. Finally, those animal products are only a small part of the average American diet," Acheson said.

Although no recalls of food for humans were announced in the United States after the contamination incidents, some hogs and chickens continue to be withheld from processing pending test results and further USDA and FDA risk assessments, Petersen told the committee.

"These imported Chinese products may have been intentionally adulterated with melamine," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat. "This raises serious concerns about the ability of our import inspection system to monitor the quality and safety of imports that enter our food supply."

Congressman Collin Peterson of Minnesota chairs the House Agriculture Committee (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"The next time tainted food or feed products slip through the very large cracks in our import inspection system, we may be forced to confront an even more serious situation in terms of animal or human health," he said.

The committee's Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican applauded the FDA's decision to detain all vegetable protein products imported from China. "I hope FDA's detention order will send a strong signal to the Chinese industry and government that we are serious about this issue and will not tolerate violations of our food import standards."

The melamine scare started March 16 when Ontario-based pet food maker Menu Foods recalled some of its products following a rash of animal sickness and deaths. Menu recalled hundreds of its wet pet food products for dogs and cats manufactured under at least 100 different brand names.

U.S. importer ChemNutra supplied the mislabeled wheat flour to Menu Foods and co-brokered a shipment to Canada, where it was used to make fish food.

On May 2, Menu Foods expanded the recall to include products which do not include the contaminated flour but which were manufactured at any of Menu Foods' plants during the period that the contaminated material was used to take feed off the market that may have been contaminated during the manufacturing process.

"Menu Foods has received a report from a customer and has received study results, both of which indicate cross-contamination," the company said in a statement. The recall has cost the company C$45 million to date.

Speaking to reporters, Dr. Acheson speculated that the manufacturers added melamine to the feed in an attempt to boost its nitrogen content. Pet food makers measure nitrate content to determine how much protein a feedstock contains.