WASHINGTON — Seeking ways to ensure that pet food is safe, a Senate subcommittee plans to question Food and Drug Administration officials as soon as Thursday about their response to the contamination that has killed pets and led to the recall of more than 100 brands.
On Saturday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a leading advocate of improving food safety, criticized the federal inspection process for both human and pet food. "The system is broken-down," he said.
Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, called for the hearing last week. He said he would like to see the FDA set national standards and inspection rules for pet food manufacturing facilities.
"The FDA is like a fire department that is only called after the house has burned," Durbin said in a telephone interview.
He also said he would like to see federal law changed to allow the FDA to order a recall of food intended for human or pet consumption rather than rely on companies to do it voluntarily.
The agriculture appropriations subcommittee plans to schedule a hearing for Thursday or sometime next week. Durbin said he expects to hear from FDA Commissioner Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, veterinarians and representatives of the pet food industry.
The pet food recall, one of the largest in U.S. history, began March 16 when Menu Foods recalled selected "cuts and gravy" products made in its Emporia, Kan., facility in response to reports of kidney failures in cats and dogs. The company has recalled products manufactured from Nov. 8, 2006, to March 6. Officials with Menu Foods could not be reached Saturday.
Several other companies have also issued recalls.
The FDA has confirmed about 15 animal deaths from poisoning -- although the number could be much higher. The agency has received more than 12,000 reports of illnesses in the three weeks since the recall -- more than twice the number they normally receive in a year.
The recalled pet food was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastic products, which was found in wheat gluten, an ingredient used to thicken food, the FDA has concluded. The FDA said the tainted wheat gluten had been imported from one company in China.
The FDA said melamine has been found in the kidneys and urine of cats who died and "should not be in pet food at any level." The agency, however, is still investigating whether the chemical killed the animals.
In announcing the Senate hearing last week, Durbin called the pet food inspection system "deeply flawed" and criticized the FDA's response as "tragically slow." He said he hoped to learn when the FDA learned of the contamination and who is inspecting pet food plants.
"What we see here is an indication of problems across the board with food safety -- both human and pet," Durbin said Saturday. "There are too many agencies, too many laws, too many committee chairmen and too many special interest groups, which results in a piecemeal and splintered approach to food safety."
FDA officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Durbin said the Kansas facility where many of the products were made had never been inspected by the FDA. "I would be shocked if they inspected any pet facility," he said.
The FDA has "the ultimate responsibility for the safety of pet food," Durbin said, but leaves inspections of facilities to the states. He said he was told that Kansas had never inspected the facility.
Durbin wants the FDA to work with the states to establish a standardized set of regulations and inspection requirements for pet food facilities. "Each state has it own rules and standards," he said.
He also said the FDA should take steps to enact rules so that companies that delay reporting problems could face fines.
He said Menu Foods first noticed a potential problem Feb. 20 with dogs getting sick, but waited until March 15 to contact the FDA.
"Three weeks in inexcusable," he said. "There is no requirement to report it on a timely basis."
Officials with Menu Foods have said that they acted promptly to recall the pet food after receiving just a few reports of illness and before the cause was identified, saving the lives of many pets.