Food and Drug Administration inspectors who traveled across the world to investigate the mass poisoning of U.S. pets finally arrived at two suspected Chinese factories this week, only to find the sites had been cleaned out.
"We visited the two facilities, but there's essentially nothing to be found," said Walter Batts with the FDA's Office of International Programs. "They've been closed down, machinery dismantled, nothing to really get access to."
Investigators believe the two factories were lacing wheat flour with the chemical melamine in a way that would make testers think it was gluten, which made a relatively cheap product appear to be a valuable protein source.
The tainted flour made its way into pet food and is believed to be behind the deaths of hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of U.S. cats and dogs. The material also made its way into feed for pigs, chickens and fish that were being bred for human consumption.
Chinese officials have confirmed that officials working for the factories have been arrested. But the FDA's investigators have not been given access to them.
"Our investigators have not interviewed them directly," Batts told reporters Thursday. "And that's all I can report on that at this time."
But Batts said the FDA's counterpart in China, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, had been very cooperative," sharing documents and "anything they've found during the investigation."
"They do have limited authority over the firms in this instance, and so that has hampered some of this," Batts said. "It's hampered what they were able to do before we even arrived on-site. And they carried out an extensive investigation before our team arrived in China."
Chinese food inspectors, he said, have "obtained samples" from the factories, and FDA investigators have visited the independent labs where those samples are being tested.
FDA inspectors arrived in China the last weekend in April but got to visit the factories over the last three days, one FDA official said.
That's nearly two months after Menu Foods issued the first recall of pet food in the United States March 16. China did not "invite" U.S. inspectors to investigate in the country until April 26.
But Batts dispelled reports China delayed FDA investigators' entry into the country. To the contrary, he said China's embassy expedited passport and visa applications.
"We found them very cooperative, and in fact, when the passports of our travelers were presented to the embassy for visas, they were taken care of within the same day -- one of them within an hour of receipt, which is unprecedented turnaround for a Chinese embassy affixing visas."
FDA officials report more than 18,000 U.S. consumers have called the agency to say their pet may have been affected by melamine. As many as 50 percent of those calls claimed to be associated with an animal death. But Batts said the Chinese government is not stonewalling.
"The fact that facilities may have been closed or shut down by the companies and there wasn't much to see is just a fact," he said, "and not necessarily to be blamed on a lack of cooperation by the Chinese authorities."