During a teleconference with reporters, the FDA's Acheson said several times that the agency would be monitoring both human and pet food for melamine, even though so far the FDA has announced finding the toxin only in pet food. Products will be inspected if they contain glutens of wheat, rice or corn, corn meal, rice bran and soy protein. These ingredients are widely added to a variety of human foods, such as bread, cereals, pizza dough, pasta, protein bars, baby formula and vegetarian products.
"As part of this approach," Acheson says, the "FDA and the state authorities are going to raise awareness with manufacturers and processors about the importance of knowing all there is to know about their suppliers." Thus far, contaminated wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate has been discovered in North America, and melamine-containing corn gluten was also used in pet food in South Africa. All of the tainted protein additives have been sourced to Chinese manufacturers.
The FDA said that it was possible that the protein additives were deliberately spiked with melamine to make them appear to have higher protein levels. "The motivation would be economic in that you can take a product that is low in protein…and add a substance that from a chemistry standpoint makes the product appear to have a higher protein content than it does so it can be marketed at the price," Sundlof confirmed.
The FDA will finally get a shot at getting to the root of the matter now that Chinese officials have relented to requests to allow inspectors into the country to probe gluten suppliers implicated in the potential scandal. The FDA reported that it had finally received letters of invitation from the Chinese government, which are necessary to obtain visas. The agency plans to investigate the manufacturing practices of the two suppliers of the melamine-containing rice and wheat glutens that have been imported by the U.S., to determine if and how cross-contamination may have occurred.
According to Julia Ho of the FDA's Office of International Programs, the Chinese government has been conducting its own investigations and has "also embargoed all the wheat gluten as well as the rice protein concentrate from those two companies for export."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates health and food safety, recommended that the FDA bar the import of grains from China. "If U.S. pets must serve as the 'puppies in the coal mine,' we urge FDA to heed the warning and take action now to ban grains and other grain products until the Chinese government and producers can guarantee that these imports are free of illegal and dangerous substances," the group said in a written statement.
David Elder, director of FDA's Office of Enforcement, says that shipments from the two companies are already being stopped at the border and that similar products from China are being carefully screened. "We believe," he says, "that the safety net is in place to make sure that no additional products in this general category are going to get into the commerce of the United States."
The pet food recall has swelled dramatically since the FDA first announced the discovery in late March of melamine in wheat gluten added to wet foods manufactured by Menu Foods, a Canadian-based company that makes "cuts-and-gravy"-style chow for many product lines —from premium brands like Iams to generics, such as Food Lion. This past week, Wilbur-Ellis, a San Francisco-based company that imports ingredients for feed, told the FDA, that it had received a pink bag with the word "melamine" stenciled on it in a shipment of rice protein concentrate; the rice gluten shipment, which subsequently tested positive for the toxin, came from its Chinese supplier Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co., Ltd. (The tainted wheat gluten came from another Chinese supplier, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company. (For full information on all North American brands recalling pet food, please click here.) The manufacturer Royal Canin South Africa, a subsidiary of the French pet nutrition company Royal Canin, also announced last week that it had discovered melamine in corn gluten that it received from an undisclosed Chinese supplier. The food manufactured with that ingredient is now implicated in the deaths of at least 30 dogs in two weeks, according to the South African Veterinary Association.