WASHINGTON – The U.S. is blocking imports of wheat gluten from a company in China, acting after an investigation implicated the contaminated ingredient in the recent pet-food deaths of cats and dogs.
The Food and Drug Administration took action against wheat gluten from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. in Wangdien, China, after the U.S. recall of nearly 100 brands of pet food made with the chemically contaminated ingredient. The pet food, tainted with the chemical melamine, apparently has resulted in kidney failure in an unknown number of animals across the country.
Wheat gluten from China has been suspected in the outbreak since the first of multiple recalls was announced in mid-March. Even more pet food could be recalled in the next few days, though there probably has been no contamination of human food, FDA officials said Monday.
The FDA reported last week that it had found melamine in samples of the vegetable protein source used in the recalled wet and dry pet foods and treats, as well as in cats that died after eating contaminated food.
"The wheat gluten that is positive for melamine all has come from this manufacturer," Neal Bataller, director of the division of compliance with the FDA's veterinary medicine office, told reporters. Melamine is used in plastics, countertops, glue, fire retardants and other products. Its toxicity to dogs and cats is unknown, but it is not allowed in food in any quantity.
Geng Xiujuan, Xuzhou Anying's sales manager, said the company was aware of the FDA's import alert and was looking into it. However, Geng said the company, based in the eastern province of Jiangsu, had not manufactured the wheat gluten but had instead bought it from companies in neighboring provinces. She said Xuzhou Anying sold it onward to another Jiangsu company, Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co.
"There are many other exporters and I don't see why they would just blame us," said Geng, adding that the company was undertaking an inspection but that it was too early to announce results.
The FDA still doesn't know where all the contaminated imported wheat gluten ended up, though it appears unlikely any made it into human food.
"At this time, we can say that there is no evidence to suggest that any of the imported, suspect wheat gluten formed positive lots that made it into the human food supply," said Michael Rogers, who oversees field investigations for the FDA's office of regulatory affairs.
The imported product was only minimally labeled but apparently went only to pet food producers. The FDA considers the contamination an aberration since wheat gluten generally is not considered a product at risk for contamination.
"This should not be viewed as suddenly our food supply is unsafe, because I don't believe that to be the case. In fact, the opposite is true," agency chief Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said.
FDA officials said its nationwide investigation could turn up more pet food manufacturers that used the tainted ingredient, prompting even more products to be recalled.
"It is impossible for us to say at this time that there won't be additional recalls. We're continuing to follow the trail," said David Elder, who oversees enforcement in the FDA's office of regulatory affairs. Menu Foods, a major manufacturer of nearly 100 store- and major-brand pet foods, announced the first recall March 16. Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc., Del Monte Pet Products and Nestle Purina PetCare Co. all have since recalled some of their products as well.
The FDA's import alert, disclosed Monday but posted on its Web site Friday, notifies its field offices to detain any wheat gluten offered for import from the Chinese company.
The order also recommends inspectors screen all wheat gluten from China as well as from the Netherlands, a country through which transshipping of Chinese products can occur.
The FDA could not immediately say how much wheat gluten was exported to the U.S. by Xuzhou Anying. The FDA also was working to determine whether it shipped any other food products to the U.S., said Ellen Morrison, director of FDA's office of crisis management.
The FDA has received in recent weeks more than 9,400 pet food-related complaints from consumers — nearly twice what the agency receives in a full year for all the products it regulates, von Eschenbach said.
"The sheer volume of this is extraordinary," he added.
The number of confirmed pet deaths remains at roughly 15, though anecdotal reports suggest hundreds of pets may have died. Cats appear to have been especially susceptible to the contamination.
Also Monday, Eight In One Inc., a division of United Pet Group Inc., announced the unrelated recall of all Dingo brand Chick'n Jerky treats for dogs, cats and ferrets. The treats are being recalled because they may be contaminated with salmonella, the company said. They were sold at Target, PetSmart and other stores.