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Tainted pet food contains rat poison

The recall is expanded, raising concerns that the death toll could rise substantially.

March 24, 2007|Martin Zimmerman and Daniel Costello | Times Staff Writers

Rat poison was identified Friday as the substance suspected of contaminating pet food that has killed or sickened dogs and cats across the nation, although it is still unclear how the deadly chemical got into the food.

Federal officials, meanwhile, reported an expanded recall of dog and cat food produced by Menu Foods of Ontario, Canada. The company last weekend voluntarily recalled 60 million cans and pouches of potentially contaminated products -- including popular brands such as Iams and Eukanuba and private-label brands sold by large retailers.

The expanded recall and the findings released by New York state health officials raised concerns that the death toll from the contaminated food could rise significantly as more cases come to light.

"This is a massacre," said Valerie Marz, a Pasadena elementary school teacher whose 15-year-old cat, Zenith, was euthanized a week ago after suffering suspected kidney failure, which is the cause of death linked to the contaminated food.

"I think the number of deaths here is going to turn out to be much higher."

The Food and Drug Administration estimated that the contaminated food has caused 14 pet deaths in the United States. However, the agency said it had received 4,400 complaints and inquiries from pet owners and veterinarians about the matter, and others say the death toll may be higher.

As of midday Friday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 10 confirmed pet deaths -- five cats and five dogs -- from kidney failure in recent days and 15 additional cases of very sick animals with similar symptoms.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county's public health director, said the department was investigating 86 suspicious cases in which pet food might have played a role in an animal's recent illness.

"It's going to take a while before this stops," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles. The number of victims "could be in the thousands."

Health officials in New York said laboratory tests of pet food made by Menu Foods found aminopterin, a substance that is used to kill rodents in other countries but is banned in the United States. The tests found levels of at least 40 parts per million.

"Any amount of this product is too much in food," said New York Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker.

The pet food samples were tested by the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University and the New York State Food Laboratory, which identified aminopterin as the toxic substance. The labs are part of a nationwide network set up after the 2001 terrorist attacks to test for contaminants in the nation's food supply.

Executives at Menu Foods said Friday that they didn't know how the rat poison got into their products. They said they had stopped using an ingredient that might be responsible for the contamination. The company declined to say what it was.

"We'll systematically go through every ingredient and eliminate them as a possibility," said Richard Shields, Menu Foods' executive vice president. "We don't believe our quality control was lax."

Because aminopterin is widely used as a rodenticide in China, where Menu Foods gets wheat gluten that is used to make pet "gravy" for some of its pet-food brands, there is some suspicion that the country could be the origin of the problem.

Although the FDA said it hadn't located the exact source of the contamination, it did say it had traced the delivery route of wheat gluten supplied to the Menu Foods plants in Kansas and New Jersey where the contaminated food was produced. Menu continues to produce pet food at the two plants.

FDA officials also said there had been no reports of human sickness in connection with the tainted products.

"We have no reason to believe this chemical has entered the U.S. food supply," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

The agency said Menu Foods had voluntarily expanded its recall to include all 95 brands of its "cuts and gravy"-style food, regardless of when they were produced. Previously, the recall included products made from Dec. 3 of last year to March 6.

Dry pet food is not included in the recall.

FDA officials said they had not ruled out sabotage as the cause of the contamination but added that they hadn't found evidence to indicate foul play. New York law enforcement officials said they were not investigating the matter.

The poisonings have unnerved pet owners in the U.S., where more than 80 million households own a dog, a cat or both.

Menu Foods Chief Executive Paul Henderson said his company had fielded more than 200,000 calls from concerned pet owners since the problem came to light a week ago. Many of the callers expressed "a level of concern that only pet owners like ourselves can understand."

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