The North American food supply has been contaminated—again. This time, it’s not E. coli, Mad Cow, avian flu, or salmonella.
The most-recent headline grabber is the chemical melamine, an organic compound, which entered animal feeds and is part of the pet-food contamination that resulted in 150 brand and 5,300 product recalls.
On May 1, federal officials said at least 2.5 million broiler chickens from an Indiana producer were fed pet-food scraps contaminated with melamine and entered the food supply. They estimate between 2.5 million and 3 million ate the contaminated poultry. As of press time, no illnesses have been reported nor have there been reports of restaurant connections.
But officials said hundreds of other producers might have sold an unknown number of contaminated poultry in recent months, which means there was a broader consumption of contaminated feed and food than had previously been acknowledged in the pet-food situation.
Two weeks prior to the poultry announcement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced swine had been contaminated with melamine, too, but said pork fed adulterated feeds will not be approved to enter the food supply.
The FDA determined that rice protein concentrate imported from China was contaminated with melamine and melamine-related compounds and was imported by Wilbur-Ellis, an importer and distributor of agricultural products. Although the company began importing product from China in August 2006, Wilbur-Ellis did not become aware of the contamination until April 2007.
The FDA believes the rice protein was used in the production of pet food and a portion of the pet food was used to produce animal feed. An ongoing investigation is tracing products distributed since August 2006 by Wilbur-Ellis throughout the distribution chain.
Last week, as part of its investigation, the FDA ordered all vegetable protein imports from China used in human and animal food detained.
But the agency is adamant that the chemical poses little threat to humans. John Groves, professor of chemistry at Princeton University, told the Associated Press that when tested in rats and mice, melamine has shown very low toxicity, meaning it is only harmful in extremely high doses. Groves said it has produced stones that resulted in bladder tumors in rats when they were fed a diet that was 10,000 parts per million, or 1 percent, melamine.