Chemical might have killed thousands of pets


May 02, 2007|By Chris Emery and Jonathan D. Rockoff | Chris Emery and Jonathan D. Rockoff,sun reporters

Federal health officials announced yesterday that the number of pets sickened or killed by contaminated pet food could be far bigger than previously reported, and they now believe that an industrial chemical operating in conjunction with related compounds is responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs.

Contaminated products might have entered the human food supply, health officials said, because more than 3 million chickens at farms in Indiana could have eaten feed containing the chemical melamine and been processed. But the officials said the threat to people is extremely low.

"Those chickens are a tiny fraction of the more than 9 billion farmed for processing or breeding each year," said Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator for field operations at the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "It's a small part of the pet food, and then it's a small part of the feed, and indications are it was fed for a very brief period of time."

The evidence of more widespread melamine contamination follows the discovery of the chemical in certain dog and cat food products last month. The Food and Drug Administration said it has received 17,000 reports of cats and dogs that became ill or died.

Investigators have suspected that melamine was to blame but were unsure how. They have been hindered by a shortage of research examining its effects. A few studies have shown that rats fed huge amounts of the substance developed bladder stones and later cancer.

FDA officials said they suspect that melamine combined with related chemicals caused kidney problems and deaths in cats and dogs. One of the related chemicals is cyanuric acid, which is commonly used to clean pools.

The melamine - a byproduct of coal - has been traced to protein products imported from China and then added to the pet foods and animal feeds.

There have been no reports of illness among farm animals that ate adulterated feed, and there is little threat to humans, officials said.

"We still have no evidence of harm to humans," said David W.K. Acheson, the FDA's new assistant commissioner for food protection.

However, Mickey Parish, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the implications for human food are unclear.

"It's what we don't know that's the issue," Parish said. "Melamine is a non-food grade substance so we don't know much about its effect on the human body."

Officials said they have confirmed 16 pet deaths, but the FDA has found 8,000 of the reports of pet food poisoning that it has received - including about 4,000 deaths - credible enough to enter into a database for further examination.

Officials announced Monday that melamine and related compounds had been found in wheat gluten used in chicken feed on farms in Indiana.

A few days earlier, officials announced that contaminated feed might have been fed to as many as 6,000 hogs. The feed is thought to have been used in California, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah.

Most of the hogs have been quarantined, but some might have gone to slaughter, federal officials said.

Recent news reports suggested that melamine often makes its way into the food of Chinese farm animals, and federal investigators think it has been added to wheat gluten and rice protein products shipped abroad from China.

It is unclear whether the meat and milk from farm animals that ingest melamine would contain the substance, experts said.

Household pets such as cats and dogs often eat a simple diet consisting of a single pet food, but the feed given to farm animals tends to contain a wider array of ingredients, which probably reduces the concentration of melamine and the potential risk to humans.

One explanation for melamine's harmful effects is that it might crystallize when combined with cyanuric acid. Such crystals could lead to kidney failure.

"It sounds as though it's filtered in the kidneys," said Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Crystals are forming and blocking the kidneys."

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