Farm fish might have received tainted feed

Food safety czar says contamination no risk

May 09, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Fish farmed for Americans' kitchens and fishing streams might have been fed meal laced with the industrial chemical from China that has caused one of the largest pet food recalls in history, federal health officials said yesterday.

But even if fish given the adulterated meal entered the food chain, the level of contamination would be too low to threaten the health of Americans, said Dr. David W.K. Acheson, the new food safety czar at the Food and Drug Administration.

Fish are now the third type of animal that could have eaten the tainted feed, which was also sent to chicken and hog farms.

The investigation of fish farms has just begun, and federal health officials said it was too early to specify the number of fish or farms that received feed contaminated with the chemical melamine. Nor do they know whether any fish that might have been fed contaminated food has entered the human food supply.

Fish at one farm were too young and too small for sale, Acheson said during a conference call updating the status of the two-month investigation into melamine contamination of pet and animal food.

The fish feed came from an unidentified Canadian company that mixed it with contaminated ingredients imported from China by Chem Nutra Inc., a Las Vegas firm that also sold supplies to makers of pet food.

At least 16 cats and dogs and perhaps thousands more died from eating tainted products, and companies have recalled more than 150 brands of pet food. Investigators suspect that melamine working in combination with related chemicals such as cyanuric acid, caused crystals to form in the animals' kidneys, killing them.

Chinese producers, investigators believe, spiked the pet food ingredients to get higher prices for their shipments.

Investigators have discovered that some of the shipments were mislabeled, Acheson said. Follow-up testing of contaminated shipments revealed that they contained wheat flour, not the wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate that pet food makers thought they were buying to add protein and thicken their products. That doesn't pose a threat to consumers, Acheson said.

It is easier, and perhaps cheaper, to make wheat flour than wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate, Acheson said. Investigators have been visiting the two firms in China where the shipments originated and expect to complete their work there next week.

Vera Adams, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, said U.S. inspectors are sampling wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate from China and other foreign countries as a "precautionary step" to assure food safety.

The Agriculture Department has released half of the 20 million chickens that have been quarantined since Friday, after testing indicated they were not fed contaminated feed.

Perdue Farms, the Salisbury-based chicken giant that is the country's third-biggest poultry producer, doesn't believe any of its chickens were fed melamine, according to a company official.

"We received written assurances from our ingredient suppliers that none of our feed ingredients contained melamine," said Julie DeYoung, a Perdue spokeswoman. "We have begun random sampling of our ingredients, and our testing indicates that no melamine is present."

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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