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Tainted pet food may be in stores

A Senate hearing highlights holes in the system that ensures animal safety

Apr 13, 2007 | Los Angeles Times

Tainted pet food might still be sitting on the shelves of America's stores, federal officials said Thursday.

Food and Drug Administration officials testified before a Senate subcommittee looking into the contamination scare that has killed at least 16 pets and sickened thousands of others.

The problem prompted a recall by several companies of about 100 brands of pet food in recent weeks, and the FDA officials said more recalls may be ahead. They also said they have no clear idea how many animals have been affected.

"This is one of the largest pet-food recalls in history, if not the largest," said Dr. Steven Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Pet food is generally a very safe product. This is quite disturbing because it's so unusual and we're dealing with a substance we've never encountered before."

The hearing highlighted gaping holes in the system to ensure pet-food safety.

Pet-food manufacturers are not regularly inspected, and there are no penalties for a firm's failure to promptly report problems to the FDA.

Also, the federal government has no authority to recall a faulty food product intended for humans or pets; instead, it must rely on voluntary compliances by the private sector.

The pet-food scare echoes a host of problems the FDA has struggled with in recent years that have heightened concerns about the regulatory agency.

Prescription drugs have been found to cause dangerous side effects after they have been approved for market, E. coli contamination of spinach drove people away from the vegetable and peanut butter has been recalled from grocery shelves.

"This is the story of food safety in America," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who plans to introduce a bill to improve regulation of pet food. Durbin said heightened public awareness about food safety could make it easier to get legislation passed.

"From E. coli spinach to pet food, it raises the same issues over and over," Durbin said.

The hearing was prompted by the announcement last month that a Canadian company, Menu Foods, was recalling wet pet food produced by its plants in Kansas and New Jersey after animals eating their samples had died.

Officials traced the problem to Chinese wheat gluten, a binding agent used in human and animal food, that was contaminated with melamine, a chemical that has no approved use in food.

It is not clear how the melamine was introduced into the wheat gluten, and FDA officials said they have asked China to help with the investigation. The crisis and its implications for food safety could have a significant impact on burgeoning Chinese agricultural imports to the U.S.

Sundlof said the FDA was working with state agriculture departments and had 400 employees assigned to the investigation, checking retail stores nationwide.


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