Pet food scare may bring trade reform to China
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2007:
BEIJING–Furor over the deaths of cats and dogs who were
poisoned by adulterated and mislabeled Chinese-made pet food
ingredients may have protected millions of people as well as animals
Chinese citizens themselves, and their pets, may be the
most numerous beneficiaries of new food safety regulations introduced
by the Beijing government on May 9, 2007.
With 1.5 billion citizens, China is the world’s most
populous nation–and also has more than twice as many pets as any
other nation. Officially, China had more than 150 million pet dogs
as of mid-2005. China is also believed to have from 300 to 450
million pet cats, but the Chinese cat population has never been
The first announced Chinese regulatory changes covered only
exports, but within hours the rules governing items sold on the
domestic market were strengthened as well.
Summarized Daniel Martin, Beijing correspondent for Agence
France-Presse, “The department in charge of inspecting export
products said it had instructed its offices across China to increase
inspections and supervision. Separately, China’s State Council, or
cabinet, announced it had ordered more inspections of all plant and
aquaculture products, and increased control of pesticides, chemical
fertilizers, drugs, and animal feed. It also called for better
systems of official responsibility over food safety, and for
monitoring the movement of food products.
“China has ordered such crackdowns in the past amid health
scares,” Martin acknowledged. Follow-up has then been lax.
This time, however, the Beijing government reinforced the
message by sentencing former State Food & Drug Administration chief
Zheng Xiaoyu to death for taking bribes and dereliction of duty,
while heading the agency from 1998 to 2005. The sentence was
announced on May 28, 2007. Zheng Xiaoyu, 62, was the first
Chinese official of his rank to receive the death penalty for
corruption since 2000.
The melamine contamination issue, unlike most previous
adulteration cases involving Chinese-made products, spread far
beyond China and the small developing nations which have previously
This time the adulteration hit throughout the U.S., Canada,
South Africa, and Puerto Rico. From 15 to 20 million pet caretakers
purchased melamine-tainted food for their animals. In excess of 60
million pet food containers marketed under more than 150 labels were
More than two months after the recalls began, on March 16,
2007, the pet food industry was still announcing recalls of
additional products found to contain melamine.
Two Chinese companies, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology
Development and Binzhou Futian Biology Technology, are believed to
have exported wheat and rice glutens that were deliberately
contaminated with melamine, a coal derivative, to fool purchasers
who used a test to measure protein content that measures nitrogen
emissions. Of no nutritional value to animals, melamine is commonly
used as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and as an ingredient of hard
Melamine-tainted pet food is believed to have killed at least
1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs in the U.S. alone, the Food & Drug
Administration estimates, based on consumer claims. The Banfield
veterinary hospital chain has put the possible toll at as many as
The FDA on May 1, 2007 assigned chief food division medical
officer David Acheson, M.D., to supervise improving food safety
surveillance. By May 4, Acheson was pondering what to do about 20
million chickens and 6,000 pigs who had been given feed made in part
from recalled pet food.
“About 2.5 million to 3 million broiler chickens raised on
those farms [that bought the tainted feed] already have been
slaughtered and most likely have been consumed,” Washington Post
staff writer Rick Weiss disclosed.
About 100,000 breeder chickens were culled.
Usually an animal who has been fed adulterated food is
considered unfit for human consumption, USDA spokesperson Keith
Williams told Weiss. However, after preliminary tests found no
measurable traces of melamine in the chickens, and found that they
appeared to be healthy, the USDA, FDA and Environmental Protection
Agency produced a joint risk assessment, determined that the
potential human exposure risk would be one 2,500th of the level that
might cause harm, and released the remaining chickens for slaughter
and sale as usual.
“We do not believe there is any significant threat to human
health,” Acheson concluded.
The pigs were held for further testing.
In China, meanwhile, “We visited the two facilities,” FDA
Office of International Programs deputy director Walter Batts told
reporters, “but there is essentially nothing to be found. They’ve
been closed down, machinery dismantled, with nothing to get access
The Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Develop-ment Company
plant manager Mao Lijun was reportedly detained by Chinese
“Farmers in this poor rural area about 400 miles northwest of
Shanghai had complained to local government officials since 2004 that
Mao’s factory was spewing noxious fumes that made their eyes tear up
and the poplar trees nearby shed their leaves prematurely,” said the
Los Angeles Times.
“Yet no one stopped Mao’s company from churning out bags of
food powders and belching smoke-until last month when, in the middle
of the night, bulldozers arrived and tore down the facility. It
wasn’t authorities who finally acted: Mao himself razed the brick
factory, days before the U.S. FDA investigators arrived in China on
a mission to track down the source of the tainted pet food
Elaborated New York Times China correspondent David Barboza,
“Xuzhou Anying shipped more than 700 tons of wheat gluten labeled as
non-food products this year through a company called Suzhou Textiles
Silk Light and Industrial Products,” which was denied by Suzhou
“Despite denials of knowing anything about melamine
contamination,” Barboza continued, “Xuzhou appears to have sought
to buy large supplies of melamine, even in the weeks after the pet
food recall. The company posted more than a dozen ads on the
Internet seeking melamine scrap.
Henan Xinxiang Huaxing Chemical Company manager Li Xiuping
acknowledged to Barboza that the ads were unusual. “Our chemical
products are mostly used for additives, not animal feed,” Li
Xiuping said. “Melamine is mainly used in the chemical industry,
but can also be used to make cakes.”
Commented Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the
Center for Science in the Public Interest, “The real issue is not
melamine, but that this problem exposes such a huge gap in consumer
protection. It’s not this event, but the next event that people
should be concerned about.”
Food and consumer product safety in the U.S., Canada, the
European Union, and other developed nations has been maintained for
decades by semi-harmonized regulations which require that ingredients
be subjected to extensive testing before products using them can be
Animal tests are still the mainstay of product safety
evaluation. Animals are used primarily to study total systemic
response. If animals exhibit adverse effects, non-animal tests may
be used to zero in on the problem.
While more than 40 non-animal testing methods are now used to
assess specific toxic responses, developing a non-animal test that
accurately mimics the complexity of a whole living organism has
Whether animal or non-animal tests are employed, the safety
determination process depends upon manufacturers honestly disclosing
product ingredients, and then not varying the formula once a
substance is put into production.
Even seemingly minor substitutions of ingredients can change
product safety–like substituting diethylene glycol, a cheap but
potentially deadly chemical, for glycerin, which is chemically
similar, but is safe, and is much more expensive.
Diethylene glycol is the sweet-tasting toxic ingredient of
many common brands of automotive antifreeze that are commonly misused
to poison animals. Laws have been passed in several
states–including Arizona in 2007–to require that bittering agents
be added to diethylene and ethylene glycol products to prevent
FDA spokesperson Doug Arbesfeld disclosed on May 23, 2007
that the FDA has begun to check all imports of toothpaste made in
China, after diethylene glycol was found in Chinese-made toothpaste
sold in the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Australia.
China is the second-largest exporter of toothpaste to the
United States behind Canada, Arbesfeld indicated.
The FDA had no indication that diethylene glycol had been
used in toothpaste sold in the U.S., but became concerned after
Dominican health officials seized 36,000 tubes of toothpaste
suspected of containing diethylene glycol.
“Included were tubes of toothpaste with bubble gum and
strawberry flavors marketed for children and sold under the name of
Mr. Cool Junior,” reported The New York Times.
Dominican Republic secretary of health Bautista Rojas Gomez
said that the toothpaste actually listed diethylene glycol as an
ingredient, and was found in stores and warehouses across the
country. There were indications that some might have been sold in
Panamanian officials seized 6,000 tubes of the same
toothpaste several days earlier, sold under the brand names Mr. Cool
and Excel. Samples reportedly contained up to 4.6% diethylene
glycol. Recalled New York Times reporters David Barboza and Walt
Bogdanich, “Diethylene glycol is the same poison that the Panamanian
government unwittingly mixed into cold medicine last year, killing
at least 100 people. In that case, the poison was falsely labeled
as glycerin, a harmless syrup. It originated in China, shipping
A manager at Goldcredit International, the first Chinese
firm to market Mr. Cool toothpaste, told Barboza that, “If
diethylene glycol were poisonous,” he said, “all Chinese people would
have been poisoned,” because Chinese manufacturers had been
substituting diethylene glycol for glycerin in toothpastes made for
domestic consumption for many years.
In fact, many Chinese people have been poisoned by similar
substitutions. On May 28, 2007 the China News Service disclosed
that the families of 10 people who died from injections of fake and
tainted medicine at the Zhongshan University #9 Hospital in Guangzhou
have sued the same company that made the diethylene glycol sold to
Panama as glycerin. The families are seeking damages of $2.6 million.
Only one day after the FDA began checking toothpaste, the
Hong Chang Corporation of Santa Fe Springs, California, announced a
three-state recall of yet another apparently mislabeled product
originating in China, in this case frozen “monkfish” sold in
Illinois, California, and Hawaii. Two Chicago residents who ate a
soup made from the “monkfish” suffered tetrodotoxin poisoning,
indicating that the “monkfish” were actually pufferfish. The
pufferfish poison is not destroyed by cooking or freezing.
Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the
University of Georgia, and former FDA science advisory board chair,
warned Boston Globe staff reporter Diedtra Henderson that that
biggest threat to public health from Chinese food products might come
from pond-raised shrimp– not because of either adulteration or
mislabeling, but due to a production method that permits rapid
transmission of diseases from poultry to humans with shrimp as
In China, Doyle explained, shrimp are produced on
“hundreds of thousands of little farms. They have small ponds.
Over the ponds–in not all cases, but in many cases–they’ll have
chicken cages. It might be like 20,000 chickens in cages. The
chicken feces feeds the shrimp.”
The USDA has found that up to 10% of shrimp imported from
China contains salmonella, Doyle said.
“Even more worrisome are shrimp imported from China that
contain antibiotics that no amount of cooking can neutralize,”
Henderson wrote. “Last month alone, the FDA rejected 51 shipments
of catfish, eel, shrimp, and tilapia from China because of such
contaminants as salmonella, veterinary drugs, and nitrofuran, a
Michael Gregor, M.D., warned in his 2006 book Bird Flu: A
Virus of Our Own Hatching that the combination of intensive
confinement poultry production with aquaculture in southern China
could become the incubator and vector for spreading the deadly avian
influenza H5N1 worldwide. With the right mutation, H5N1 could
spread as far and fast as frozen shrimp could be flown to restaurants
“The safety of food imports from China extends beyond the pet
food recall,” Senators Richard Durbin of Connecticut and Rosa
DeLauro of Illinois warned in an open letter to U.S. Trade Ambassador
“China is especially poor at meeting international food
safety standards, which is particularly disturbing considering that
China exported approximately $2.26 billion in agricultural products
to the United States in 2006.
“This issue is particularly important,” Durbin and DeLauro
continued, “as U.S. agricultural imports [from all sources] are
predicted to reach a record $69 billion in 2007. If we are to
continue at this rate, we must ask important questions about the food
safety standards of our trade partners to ensure our nation’s public
health is not compromised.”
Durbin and DeLauro proposed combining elements of the FDA and
USDA to create a single unified food and drug safety agency.
Meanwhile, Durbin and DeLauro introduced a budget bill amendment
which would form a computerized reporting system for contaminants in
imported products, and would include early-warning coverage of pet
Durbin also proposed a $183 million increase next year in the
FDA food safety budget, now about $470 million.
State-level legislation proposed to address issues raised by
the melamine episode includes two New Jersey bills which would help
protect pets from contaminated pet food and help pet keepers to
recoup the cost of treating pets for health problems caused by the
ChemNutra, of Las Vegas, the original importer of the
melamine-spiked glutens that ended up in pet food, scheduled a Pet
Food Ingredients Safety Summit for July 14, 2007 in Las Vegas, at
which manufacturers, ingredient importers, and analysis
laboratories are to draft proposed global import standards for pet