THURSDAY, May 3 (HealthDay News) -- Two months after it triggered the largest pet food recall in U.S. history, a key Canadian manufacturer has widened its recall once more on the threat of cross-contamination in some products.
The latest action comes amid reports from U.S. health officials that more than 4,000 dogs and cats may have died from eating contaminated pet food. On Thursday, however, health officials said the investigation was winding down and the contamination posed little health risks to humans.
U.S. regulators also reported that the Chinese company accused of exporting wheat gluten that included the toxic chemical melamine had intentionally labeled its shipments as nonfood to avoid inspections.
The newest recall, which covers products in the United States, Canada and Europe, involves any pet food processed at any Menu Food plant during the period in which contaminated wheat gluten was in that plant, according to the recall notice issued late Wednesday. The original recall by the company involved more than 60 million cans and pouches of moist dog and cat food. The new recall, the Streetsville, Ontario company said, includes cuts and gravy and select other products.
The company, which produces pet foods for more than 100 name brands, said the additional recall represents less than 5 per cent of the products that have already been recalled or withdrawn. It did not say what the cross-contamination involved. An updated list of all recalled products is available at the company's website at http://www.menufoods.com.
The news followed reports earlier this week that contaminated pet food leftovers had been fed to hogs and chickens, many of which have been processed for human consumption.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials continue to downplay any potential human health risk.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, said, "At Menu Foods, some of the contaminated product was cross-contaminated with other product, that is the reason for the extended recall.
"We believe the likelihood of a human illness from melamine is unlikely," Acheson said. "Only 5 to 8 percent of the wheat gluten is melamine. It is only a small percentage of the ingredients in the pet food. When it gets down to the poultry and pork it is even a smaller percentage of melamine.
"We are preventing any further contaminated protein supplements coming in from China," he added. "I am confident that the investigation into contaminated pet food has been exhausted. We have chased the contaminated wheat gluten and we are confident that it has not entered human food except through the pet food fed to animals."
But the FDA, which has only ever confirmed the deaths of 16 pets from contaminated food since the recall began March 16, now says that pet owners have reported the deaths of about 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs. It was not known how many of those were linked to the recalled pet food, the AP reported.
The New York Times reported that FDA officials also say the Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company shipped more than 700 tons of wheat gluten labeled as nonfood products this year through a third-party Chinese textile company.
By listing the goods as nonfood items, the company's shipments were not subject to mandatory inspection by the Chinese government, the newspaper reported.
ChemNutra, the Las Vegas pet food supplier that bought the wheat gluten from Xuzhou and then resold it to pet food makers in North America, said it had received the shipments of wheat gluten through a third party, a company called Suzhou Textiles Silk Light and Industrial Products. A spokesman for that company denied the charge.
The other supplier of contaminated protein is Binzhou Futian Biology Technology, which said that it supplies soy, corn and other proteins and has strong sales in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia. The company also declined to comment, the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday in favor of stricter production and labeling standards on pet foods so consumers are better informed about what they are feeding their pets, the Associated Press reported.
The 94-0 vote was on an amendment by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., which called for a national pet version of the system that now tracks food contamination and outbreaks of illness and death in people.
In a prepared statement, the Humane Society applauded the Senate action.
"The Humane Society of the United States commends Senator Durbin for his fast action to protect the food supply for people and their pets," said Wayne Pacelle, its president and CEO. "The last six weeks have exposed that the safety standards for pet foods are not in place in any significant way and the constant drumbeat, day after day, of recalls has shaken consumers' confidence in the pet food industry's adherence to food safety standards."
Earlier this week, U.S. health officials had reported that up to 3 million broiler chickens were fed tainted pet food and then sold on the U.S. market beginning in early February.
The contaminated pet product made its way into poultry feed at 38 Indiana farms, 30 of which produced broiler chickens destined for restaurants and supermarkets, said FDA and USDA officials.
Approximately 2.5 million to 3 million chickens fed contaminated pet food have already been sold, Kenneth Peterson, assistant administrator for field operations at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said during a Tuesday teleconference.
The announcement came on the heels of similar discoveries at hog farms across the United States. The USDA first announced last week that meat from 345 hogs suspected of eating the contaminated feed had entered the U.S. food supply. Some 6,000 hogs suspected of eating the contaminated product have since been quarantined and meat from these animals will be withheld from the food supply, both agencies said.
Last week, China banned melamine from its food products, but rejected the charge that the substance caused the U.S. pet deaths, the AP reported.
On Friday, the Times reported, Chinese officials detained the general manager of Xuzhou on unspecified charges. The move was viewed as a sign that the Chinese government was stepping up its own probe while trying to cooperate with U.S. health investigators who are now in the country.
U.S. regulators, meanwhile, were continuing to investigate how -- or even if -- melamine becomes fatal for pets, because it's not believed to be particularly toxic. U.S. law bans its presence in any form of food.
For more information on pet food, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
SOURCES: May 3, 2007, teleconference with David Acheson, M.D., assistant commissioner for food protection, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Kenneth Peterson, assistant administrator for field operations, Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; May 2, 2007, statement, Menu Foods; May 2, 2007, statement, Humane Society of America; The New York Times; Associated Press