WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A chemical linked to a huge U.S. pet food recall has been found in another ingredient used to make products for dogs and cats, U.S health officials and an agricultural company said on Thursday.
Melamine, used in plastics and fertilizer, has turned up in rice protein concentrate imported from China and shipped to five pet food manufacturers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials suspect the chemical, previously found in wheat gluten, led to earlier pet fatalities and illness.
The finding widens the number of dog and cat food products pulled from United States retailers since mid-March. More than 100 brands of pet food have been already been recalled after reports of kidney failure.
“This is an ongoing investigation,” said Michael Rogers, head of the FDA’s Division of Field Investigations.
Wilbur-Ellis Co., a privately-held international agricultural and industrial products distributor, earlier on Thursday said the contaminated rice protein came from China-based Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd.
An official at the Chinese firm denied responsibility and said contamination may have been occurred during shipment.
“It is impossible that we would add the chemical ourselves. We’ve been doing exports for many years,” the official, who declined to give her name, said when contacted by telephone.
The protein was shipped to five U.S. manufacturers in Utah, New York and Kansas and two in Missouri.
San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis said pet food makers using the protein should issue a recall but declined to name the manufacturers, although two have already issued recalls.
“It’s really the responsibility of the FDA and the manufacturers to take the next step,” John Thatcher, chief executive officer for Wilbur-Ellis, told Reuters.
Natural Balance Pet Foods, has recalled its venison-flavored dog and cat foods after reports of vomiting and kidney problems. Tests have confirmed melamine in the products, which contain the rice protein, the FDA said.
The Blue Buffalo Co. on Thursday recalled its Spa Select Kitten dry food labeled as best used by March 7, 2008.
Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the agency would not name the other makers until officials could confirm whether they made pet food with the tainted protein. Sundlof said consumers should check FDA’s Web site for updates.
Overall, the FDA has received more than 15,000 reports of pet illnesses so far, he added. Officials have confirmed 16 deaths but believe the actual number could be higher.
The expanded recall follows an earlier mass recall by Canada-based pet food manufacturer Menu Foods Income Fund, which in March said its products contained wheat gluten from China tainted with melamine.
That led to the withdrawal of millions of cans and pouches of pet food sold under brands such as Procter & Gamble Co.’s Iams and Eukanuba, as well as store brands sold at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Safeway Inc.
Other makers, including Colgate-Palmolive Co.’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc., Nestle SA’s Purina PetCare Co. and Del Monte Pet Products also recalled products.
FDA officials have said the gluten was imported from China-based Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. but the company has denied involvement.
On Wednesday, some lawmakers said FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach told them the Chinese government has refused to allow FDA inspectors to visit suspected facilities.
Beijing’s quality inspection authorities have said their investigations showed Anying had never exported wheat gluten designated as feed or food ingredient to the United States.
“There are many types of wheat gluten...If the manufacturers mistakenly make pet food with gluten designated for industrial use, it’s them who would be responsible for any pet deaths,” it said in a statement on its Web site (www.aqsiq.gov.cn).
Democrats Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut have urged Zhou Wenzhong, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, to allow inspections.
One theory is that adding melamine artificially boosted protein measurements and thereby the value of the ingredients. FDA’s Sundlof said “it’s still only a theory but certainly seems to be a plausible one.”
FDA officials said they are actively checking all shipments of rice protein and wheat gluten imported into the United States. The rice protein did not appear to be as widely used as the gluten, they said.
The agency has also received a report about tainted corn gluten used in South Africa, they added, but has no information that it has been imported into the United States.
Additional reporting by Paritosh Bansal in New York and Guo Shipeng in Beijing