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Industrial chemical found in pet food

Melamine is discovered in products and in sick cats. U.S. testing doesn't confirm an earlier finding of rat poison.

March 31, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

The bad news for animal lovers Friday was that an industrial chemical was found in recalled pet food, but the worst news was that authorities still didn't know why hundreds of dogs and cats in North America fell ill or died.

The Food and Drug Administration said its tests of pet food made by Menu Foods Income Fund of Ontario, Canada, turned up melamine, a chemical used to make plastic, glue, fertilizer and paint. Scientists at Cornell University said they discovered the substance in the urine of sick cats and in the kidney of a cat that died after consuming some of the recalled food.

But it remained unclear exactly what caused pet illnesses and deaths that sparked this month's sweeping recall.

Last week, scientists at the New York State Food Laboratory and the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell identified aminopterin, a substance found in rat poison, as the possible culprit. But the federal testing did not confirm the presence of aminopterin.

"There's little information in scientific literature on melamine exposure in dogs and cats, so it's very difficult to determine a level that would be harmful or lethal," Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said at a news conference.

Melamine, however, "should not be in pet food at any level," he added. He said the agency did not know how the melamine got into wheat gluten, an ingredient that is the focus of the FDA's investigation.

"It's awful. They don't seem to know," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles. "Meantime, people are literally afraid to feed their pets."

Neither did the new findings soothe Jim Powers of Napa, Calif., who said his cat Amber was found to have acute kidney failure about two weeks ago. He said Amber, who is improving, had been eating Nutro brand cuts-and-gravy pouches for the last year.

"It makes me feel worse because I don't believe the chemical they found has anything to do with the sickness," said Powers, 58, a lab equipment salesman with a degree in biochemistry. "It's not a very toxic material as far as I can tell. I think the aminopterin is the real culprit. It's a very poisonous substance."

City of Industry-based Nutro Products Inc. said Thursday that its dry pet foods -- which constitute more than 90% of its products -- were not part of the recall and were safe.

In another unsettling twist for pet owners Friday, Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. recalled its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry food. The division of Colgate-Palmolive Co. said it took the precautionary step because, for two months this year, wheat gluten for the product was provided by a company that also supplied the ingredient to Menu Foods. The recall did not involve any other Hill's Prescription Diet or Science Diet products, the company said.

Despite the continuing uncertainty, some experts said each bit of information that scientists uncovered brought them closer to solving the mystery.

"The chain is unbroken now -- it's in the raw ingredients, it's in the food, it's in the tissues of the animals that were affected," said Martin J. Fettman, chairman of a committee that Procter & Gamble Co.'s P&G Pet Care convened in response to the recall. "Melamine has never to my knowledge been found in the food chain, either for animals or humans, in the United States. No one ever in their wildest dreams expected that they should be testing for it routinely."

The recall launched March 16 involved 60 million cans and pouches of cuts-and-gravy-style food from about 90 brands manufactured by Menu Foods, including some wet food from Procter & Gamble's Iams and Eukanuba lines and from many private-label brands sold by large retailers.

P&G Pet Care said Friday that there was no melamine or wheat gluten in its Iams or Eukanuba dry pet foods on store shelves. Menu Foods does not make Iams and Eukanuba dry foods, the company said.

Menu Foods held its own news conference Friday to discuss what Chief Executive Paul Henderson called a "disturbing and emotional story." The company has fielded more than 300,000 calls from customers in North America, he said.

Henderson tried to reassure worried pet owners, saying the gluten in question came from a source in China that is no longer being used.

"The pet food that we have manufactured after March 6 is safe and healthy," he said.

Menu Foods knows "with certainty" that the problematic ingredient was the wheat gluten, a spokeswoman said. Tests are continuing to determine precisely what was in the wheat gluten that caused the problem.

Bernstein of the SPCA recommends that pet owners stay away from wet and dry products on the recall list and read labels in an attempt to avoid wheat gluten altogether. And "get your pet to the vet the minute you see anything weird," she added.

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