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Updated May 27, 2007
Wheat and rice products from China tainted with both
melamine and cyanuric acid, a deadly combination
Recall of tainted dog and cat foods widens

By Barbara Bradley Petura

On March 16, 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a news story on the recall of "cuts and gravy" style dog and cat food that Menu Foods, Inc., a private-label pet food manufacturer based in Streetsville, Ontario, Canada, produced at its Emporia, Kansas, facility.

Now, more than two months later, the recall has been widened to many companies, brand names and other types of pet foods. The count of pets dead or with a kidney malfunction has grown. The substance melamine -- a key culprit -- was found first in wheat gluten and then in rice protein -- both imported into North America from China -- and then in corn gluten imported from China into South Africa for use in pet food. On May 1, scientists said their tests showed that the combination of melamine and cyanuric acid -- both found in the imports -- produces the crystals that harmed cat and dog kidneys. [Read updates below.]

Here are key facts on the pet food crisis as of May 27, 2007, combined with several veterinary resources -- including dog nutrition -- relevant to this serious health threat to America's dogs and cats.

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The FDA has a summary of all the dog and cat food recalled, with links to brands. The AVMA also has an updated listing. Here is our regularly updated summary of the recalls and discoveries as the story unfolded.

On April 19, the Food and Drug Administration was quoted as saying that the most appalling possibility is that the melamine was purposely added to these foods to boost their apparent protein content. Foods containing melamine appear to have more protein due to the nitrogen in the melamine, used in Asia for fertilizer and making plastics. Typical tests for protein levels are actually tests for nitrogen levels.

The FDA said it would pursue this theory if and when it is able to inspect the manufacturing plants in China. A USA Today article explored this issue in depth. [See section on melamine, below, for more on this deceptive practice which was confirmed by the end of April.]  

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March 16-24: Early Reports     
[ Top ]

The FDA updated its original news article twice, the most recently on March 24, 2007, stating that "The recall was prompted by consumer complaints received by the manufacturer and by tasting trials conducted by the manufacturer. There has been a small number of reported instances of cats and dogs in the United States that developed kidney failure after eating the affected product."

The updated FDA article further states that "To date, Menu Foods, Inc. has reported 14 animal deaths to the FDA. Nine cats died during routine taste trials conducted by the company. Consumers reported deaths of four cats and one dog. The firm has undertaken extensive testing of the pet food products in question, but to date has been unable to find the source of the problem."

The list of 53 dog food and 42 cat food brands involved in the Menu Foods Inc. recall are listed at the company's Web site. The so-called "wet" foods are sold in cans and pouches. The company's statements to consumers and the media are here.

Dog and cat owners who have any of these products have been told to "immediately stop feeding them to their pets. Dogs or cats who have consumed the suspect feed and show signs of kidney failure (such as loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting) should consult with their veterinarian."

Early news coverage of the problem pointed to the wheat gluten used by the company. The substance aminopterin, used as a rat poison outside the United States, was an early suspect in the pet deaths, but is not the prime culprit now.

March 30: Recall expanded, melamine identified     [ Top ]

The FDA on March 30 announced that it had notified Hill's Pet Nutrition, Inc., of Topeka, Kansas, that FDA tests had detected melamine and melamine byproducts in wheat gluten received by the company to make dry cat food. Consumers who have any bags of Prescription Diet m/d Feline were told to discontinue its use and speak with their veterinarian if their cat shows any signs of kidney/renal illness such as loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting.

The FDA is investigating pet food products made with wheat gluten that contains melamine and their association with reports of injury and deaths in cats and dogs. During two months in early 2007, Hill's Pet Nutrition manufactured Prescription Diet m/d Feline using wheat gluten from the same company that has supplied wheat gluten to Menu Foods, Inc.

"Hill's Pet Nutrition [used] wheat gluten from
the same company that has supplied
wheat gluten to Menu Foods, Inc.
"

----------------------------------------

Melamine is described as a fertilizer used in China and a chemical used in manufacture of plastics. The FDA is not yet saying definitively that melamine is the problem, but is continuing its research on this possibility. However, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Donald Smith, a Cornell University veterinarian, have been quoted in news articles that an independent lab found melamine in the urine and kidneys of a dead cat and several sick ones after eating the recalled wet pet food.

The amount of melamine that would be toxic to cats and dogs is not known.

Nestle Purina Voluntarily Recalling ALPO Products     [ Top ]

On March 30, the Nestle Purina PetCare Company announced a voluntary recall of all sizes and varieties of its ALPO Prime Cuts in Gravy wet dog food. The company said it had received wheat gluten from the same company that supplied it to Menu Foods. Purina also said in its announcement that just one of its manufacturing facilities is involved and no dry foods are affected.

Del Monte Voluntarily Recalling Pet Treats, Wet Foods

On March 31, Del Monte announced a voluntary recall of "select product codes of its pet treat products sold under the Jerky Treats, Gravy Train Beef Sticks and Pounce Meaty Morsels brands as well as select dog snack and wet dog food products sold under private label brands, according to its announcement.

The Company took this action immediately after learning from the FDA that wheat gluten supplied to Del Monte Pet Products from a specific manufacturing facility in China contained melamine.  A complete list of its affected brands and products is online here.

Sunshine Mills Voluntarily Recalling Dog Biscuits     [ Top ]

On April 5, Sunshine Mills Inc. announced a voluntary recall of several types of dog biscuits and treats made in an Alabama plant in March 2007. The company took the action after learning from the FDA that wheat gluten supplied to Sunshine from a specific manufacturing facility in China contained melamine. The product list is online here.

Menu Foods Inc. Recalling 20 Additional Products

On April 5, Menu Foods Inc. announced it was recalling an additional 20 brands of dog food, following additional information concerning melamine contamination.  The New York Times on April 6 reported the expanded recall and examined the melamine issue itself.

Tainted Food Still on Shelves in Mid-April 2007

On April 12, the FDA urged retailers to be more vigilant in removing the cat and dog food brands listed in the recall. FDA officials and private individuals are checking stores and believe most of the food with the tainted wheat gluten has been removed, but urged people to be vigilant about the recalled products.

FDA officials testified in front of a federal Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday, April 12. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had called for the hearing, and stated that it seems clear that pet food manufacturing facilities are not being inspected sufficiently.  The recall affected just 1 percent of the nation's pet food supply, reports stated.

Rice Protein Also Tainted with Melamine      [ Top ]

On April 18, the FDA announced that yet another product used in pet food -- rice protein -- has been founded to contain melamine. This time it was Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc. that announced a voluntary recall of all of its Venison dog foods and dry Venison cat foods.

On April 19, importer Wilbur-Ellis said it has recalled the rice protein concentrate it imported from China and distributed to five pet food companies. One of those is Natural Balance. The other four firms have not been identified.  China is reportely refusing to allow US authorities access to the manufacturing facilties, according to an article from Reuters that has early reports of tainted corn gluten in South Africa.

Also on April 19, Diamond Pet Foods released a statement noting that the firm formerly used rice protein concentrate in two products it manufactured for other brands:  Natural Balance Venison & Brown Rice dry dog food and Natural Balance Venison & Green Pea dry cat food. They stated that this product was not used in Diamond brand foots, and also explained how they prevent cross-contamination among products.

On April 20, Royal Canin Canada, the Canadian division of the French pet food company, expanded its recall of foods to include five veterinary diet products. This was due to finding melamine in rice gluten from China used in the firm's products.

Corn Gluten Found Tainted with Melamine     [ Top ]

On April 20, news of the death of 30 dogs in South Africa -- linked to melamine in corn gluten imported from China -- was reported by the country's veterinary association {SAVA}. The dogs had died of kidney or renal failure, a parallel with the deaths and illnesses in North America. Recalls were announced by the manufacturers of Vets Choice and Royal Canin pet foods in South Africa.

By Sunday, April 22, SAVA was encouraging pet owners not to dump dog or cat food they believe is contaminated but to turn it in to their veterinarians. The goal is to eliminate the risk of the melamin getting into the environment and harming other creatures.

China to Allow in U.S. FDA Reps; Bad Pet Food Eaten by Hogs

On Monday, April 23, China finally yielded and gave permission for representatives of the FDA to enter the county and investigate how melamine got into the foods exported for pet food manufacture in the United States, according to news reports. At the same time, the FDA said it was opening a criminal investigation into the dog and cat food contamination scandal, but did not immediately name the firms that are to be targeted.

Worries about tainted pet food has now expanded to human food, with the word that the pet foods containing melamine apparently was feed to hogs in six states. Many of the hogs are quarantined.

Getting to the Sources of the Problem     [ Top ]

As of Friday, April 27, the FDA had searched the premises of two companies involved in the recall, according to news reports. The two are a pet food plant operated by Menu Foods in Emporia, Kansas., and the  offices of ChemNutra Inc. in Las Vegas.

Efforts also are underway to find precisely where in China the tainted wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate were manufactured. And how it got into dog and cat food. One firm, American Nutrition, was quoted as saying it added the rice protein concentrate to boost the protein level of rice formula foods.

American Nutriton on April 26 issued a recall of dog and cat foods made with rice protein concentrate and sold under brand names such as Harmony Farms, Blue Buffalo, Natural Balance and Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul, but not under the American Nutrition brand name.

Melamine, One of the Contaminants      [ Top ]

Melamine is an organic compound that is 66 percent nitrogen. It makes food products appear higher in protein -- because tests for protein typically are tests for nitrogen.  In animal tests, it has been associated with cancer, kidney stones or reproductive damage.

On April 29, some media reported that the addition of melamine to food products has been going on for a long time in China. By April 30, many major news services such as Associated Press were carrying the story, which was running in hundreds of online news sources including in South Africa where 30 dogs died due to the tainted food. In addition, the New York Times has created an index of its coverage of the recall.

China has now banned melamine from food products.

Meanwhile, the FDA on April 30 issued an import alert that requires firms to show that an array of food products from China are indeed safe. These products include wheat gluten, rice gluten, rice protein, rice protein concentrate,  corn gluten, corn gluten meal, corn by-products, soy protein, soy gluten, mung-bean protein and amino acids. Previously the FDA had barred imports from two Chinese companies known to be sources of the melamine-laced food products.

Melamine & Cyanuric Acid, Deadly Contaminant Duo   [ Top ]

On May 1, Canadian and U.S. scientists reported what they believe is the cause of kidney ailments and deaths in a number of cats and dogs -- namely a combination of melamine and cyanuric acid.  When they added both substances to cat urine, crystals formed -- crystals suspected of being the cause of the kidney problems.

Both of these substances have been found in the imported foodstuffs from China. Cyanuric acid, like melamine, has high levels of nitrogren and can be used to deceptively inflate the protein ratings of vegetable foods, according to a Scientific American article.  A University of Guelph clinical toxicologist and pathologist, Brent Hoff, is credited with confirming the presence of cyanuric acid in rice protein concentrate and in crystals found in the urine and kidneys of sick animals. See the University of Guelph report & pictures.

Recall widens again due to cross-contamination     [ Top ]

On May 4, the tainted pet food debacle took another turn as Menu Foods expanded its recall to include certain pet foods affected by cross-contamination. These did not directly use the ingredients such as wheat gluten that contained melamine, but were produced in the same plants during the time that the contaminated pet food products were being manufactured. This resulted in cross-contamination.

It now appears that the tainted food products from China got past customs and  into North America without inspection -- because the substances were not marked as intended for use in pet food. Rather, the products were declared to the Chinese government as non-food substances, an FDA report stated as of May 4.

Meanwhile, in both China and the United States, food inspectors are checking products such as protein concentrate to make sure they have not gotten into human foods. While there is no expectation that this has happened, it is considered prudent to check, officials say.

Wheat flour with melamine mimicked wheat gluten     [ Top ]

On May 8, the FDA announced that the melamine-tainted wheat product exported from China was actually wheat flour, not wheat gluten. The nitrogen-rich melamine made it possible to pass off the wheat flour as wheat gluten, according to a American Veterinary Medical Association news release. The same article noted that melamine-containing feed had been fed to farmed fish as well as hogs and chicken.

On May 10, the FDA and USDA held a joint news briefing on melamine in fish food, on sampling of food products from China and the status of the wider investigation. Here is a transcript.

Meanwhile, in China, managers of the two companies involved in the melamine-tainted food scandal have been detained.

New Questions & Issues Raised      [ Top ]

Now that the pet food recall has largely run its course and the sources of tainted ingredients used in some dog and cat food has been traced to China, people are asking new questions.

Columnist Steve Dale asks if cats and dogs have obtained less protein that expected from their foods, due to the tainting of food ingredients with melamine and cyanuric acid.   Both cause tests to show more protein than is actually in the food -- because the tests actually check for nitrogen, as noted above. While this question likely will never be answered, it is clear that much more attention will be paid to food imports from China.

Barbara Rasco, professor of food science and human nutrition at Washington State University, has studied food contamination for more than a decade. She says contaminated and misbranded foods from China is not a new problem, and it has serious implications for human health and for the global economy.  See her comments on video.

Kirsten Weir reminds pet owners that this isn't the first big pet food recall. Another occurred in December 2005 when "more than 100 dogs died of liver failure after eating food manufactured by Diamond Pet Foods. The products contained corn tainted with aflatoxin, a toxin released by a naturally occurring crop fungus."  Read the full article at Salon.com.

Advice from Veterinarians: Health & What to Feed      [ Top ]

What should dog and cat owners do in situations like these? The American Veterinary Medical Association or AVMA released advice to dog and cat owners promptly after the start of the recall. Three key steps to follow -- to help your vet with your pet's diagnosis -- are:

  • Retain food samples for analysis.
  • Document product name, type of product and manufacturing information.
      - Retain all packaging.
      - Identify date codes or production lot numbers.
      - Retain purchase receipts.
  • Document product consumption.
      - Dates products or products were fed.
      - Consumption and palatability history.
      - Time of onset of clinical signs.
      - Detailed dietary history (all products fed, feeding methods).

The College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University offers a Web page with advice and resources for pet owners and for veterinarians concerning the pet food recall.  It includes links to other organizations. It is worth reviewing.

What to Feed Your Dog Now?     [ Top ]

The School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis released an article that discusses what to feed your dog during this time. Recognizing that people will consider preparing their own food for their dogs, their experts note:

  • If you plan to feed home-prepared meals, please obtain a recipe providing balanced nutrition from your veterinarian.
  • Remember, "Dry foods that do not contain wheat gluten from the suspect source are considered safe to feed."

The AVMA also shared advice on preparing home-cooked food for your dog, noting that it is more complicated than one would think.  You need to understand your dog's nutritional needs.

They recommend this book if you want to cook for your pooch:   Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative.

The AVMA recommends the PetDiets Web site as a good source of information on homemade diets for pets.

A new guide on dog food, nutrition and recipes for your use is now available online at WorkingDogWeb.

Impact of the Tainted Food     [ Top ]

Official numbers of cat and dog deaths reported were low for many weeks. Only in early May were officials saying about four thousand pets had died as a result of the tainted food. Meanwhile, consumers were reporting as many as 8,500 cat and dog deaths due to kidney failures caused by the contaminated food.

The Web site Petconnection.com said as early as March 31, 2007, that 2,600 pet deaths had been self-reported through a form on its Web site. The site's owners are Dr. Marty Becker, DVM; dog and cat writer Gina Spadafori; animal health journalist Christie Keith; and Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp whose work emphasizes dog behavior. They have continuously updated the pet food recall story on their blog, giving you a way to track this problem since March 17.

What to Do Now? Monitor the News for More!     [ Top ]

By late May 2007, this pet food crisis seems about over. Still, what started on March 16 is still generating new recall announcements. On May 25, Diamond Pet Foods announced a recall of a limited quantity of Nutra Nuggets 40 Lb. Lamb Meal and Rice Formula due to discover of traces of melamine resulting from cross contamination during manufacturing. Still, with the FDA ban on many food products from China used in dog and cat food, the crisis is easing.

Dog owners are urged to monitor the news media daily for possible further recalls of dog food products. This is essential for you to be sure you are taking the best care of your dog's nutrition and health. In addition, you might try using this searchable online database of recalled foods.

Take time to learn more about dog nutrition so you can make informed decisions on what you feed your pets and working dogs.

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