FDA starts food tests to look for melamine

Scrutiny is raised after hogs might have eaten tainted feed

April 25, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON — Tests start to look for melamine in food

Search for melamine widens to human food WASHINGTON -- The government will begin a sweeping search of the country's food supply for the industrial chemical linked to the pet food scare, federal health officials announced yesterday.

By the end of the week, inspectors will start testing for melamine in corn meal, rice bran and other protein products commonly used in bread, cereal and pasta eaten by humans.

The expanded investigation comes as testing found the chemical in animals close to the human food supply - hogs at farms in California, North Carolina and South Carolina. Chickens in Missouri might have eaten it too.

Food and Drug Administration officials emphasized that there is no evidence so far that melamine has entered the human food chain, but they said they were ramping up monitoring as a precaution.

"What this assignment is all about is trying to get ahead of the curve," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "Could it have gone to other places we don't yet know about?"

Melamine is a plastic derivative not approved for use in food. Although not proven, it could be to blame for the deaths of at least 16 pets and the recall of more than 60 million cans of pet food since last month.

The scare, on the heels of bacterial outbreaks in bagged spinach, Taco Bell lettuce and Peter Pan peanut butter, has ignited fears about the safety of the nation's food supply.

Congressional lawmakers held a five-hour hearing yesterday to learn more about the food safety system. Some vowed to give more powers to inspectors to recall products, and they discussed boosting funding.

"I don't see the latest string of incidents as aberrations. It's become a systemic problem, and it calls for systemic solutions," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.

After testing revealed melamine in Chinese wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, the government had been sampling those two protein products from China.

Then the chemical turned up in another protein product, corn gluten. Investigators examining protein products also found substances related to melamine, including cyanuric acid, often used to help clean swimming pools.

The cascading discoveries prompted federal health officials to launch nationwide testing of six common protein ingredients, such as soy protein. The products thicken or stabilize pizza dough and other human foods.

"The goal is to sample all that we can to ensure" that other foods and ingredients aren't tainted with melamine or related chemicals, Acheson said. The FDA also wants to increase the vigilance of food producers.

Because of limited resources, inspectors won't test every protein product, FDA officials said. Inspectors will start by focusing on imports from China.

Investigators suspect that Chinese companies laced wheat gluten and other protein products with melamine so they could charge more. Melamine raises protein levels, which determine the price of shipments.

After initially failing to receive visas to visit plants in China, American investigators have received permission to travel and investigate the source of the melamine contamination, FDA officials said.

Investigators are also trying to determine the extent to which melamine might have tainted animal feed. Hog farms in New York, Utah and perhaps Ohio received the adulterated food. So might have a Missouri poultry farm.

California, North Carolina and Ohio have quarantined hogs, and health authorities are taking steps to make sure animal farms don't receive any more contaminated food, FDA officials said.

Another pet food manufacturer has joined the recall. SmartPak, of Plymouth, Mass., recalled a single production run of LiveSmart Weight Management Chicken and Brown Rice Dog Food and halted further distribution.

The company said it had not received reports of injuries to dogs, but the production run had used rice protein concentrate by Wilbur-Ellis Co., a San Francisco firm that had imported the tainted ingredient from China.

The chief executive of Menu Foods, a Canadian company that had imported contaminated ingredients from China, told members of Congress yesterday that foreign food production requires more scrutiny.

"What this appears to be is a deliberate case of contamination of wheat gluten in order to pass off substandard product," said Paul K. Henderson, the Menu Foods executive.

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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