Senator Durbin Outlines Food Safety Plan


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            Veterinary toxicologists have been saying that melamine alone shouldn’t cause pets to die. Melamine the tainted wheat gluten and also rice protein imported from China that was found in the over 100 brands of recalled pet foods. However, according to reports in veterinary journals melamine – used in fertilizers in Asia and hard plastics – while it absolutely shouldn’t be in food – also shouldn’t be deadly.  The toxicologists have been searching for an explanation as to why the tainted food made so many pets sick or killed them, and they think they’ve finally begun to piece the puzzle together.

            Cyanuric acid, used in the chlorination process for swimming pools, has also been found in the tainted pet foods. The pathology lab at the veterinary school at University of Guelph Veterinary College in Ontario helped make the discovery (along with the United States Food and Drug Administration); as other labs across America are now in the process of confirmation.

            Recent tests revealed that when melamine is combined with cyanuric acid, the same distinctive crystals form in cat urine as in the pets who became ill or died of the tainted food, Clinical veterinary pathologist and veterinary toxicologist Dr, Brent Hoff of the Animal Health Laboratory at Geulph Veterinary College says, “There’s no question melamine and cyanuric acid form the identical crystals we’ve been looking for, but we still don’t know what causes the cells to die. Some of my colleagues are certain there’s another explanation for that.”

            In any case, no one can argue that cyanuric acid and melamine most certainly don’t belong in pet foods. And the question of how they got there looms large. Hoff speculates that cyanuric acid hikes nitrogen levels, which then results in seemingly higher protein level in pet foods. Recent media reports suggests the Chinese did this intentionally as a cost cutting measure, and has been doing so for years.

            So what’s the real story as to how melamine or cyanuric acid get into pet foods? And should U.S. companies be culpable? “We don’t really know – but we should know,” says United States Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in a telephone conversation. “We have a lot of trade agreements (with the Chinese). We sell a lot of food products and they sell to us. But we’re not asked to suspend our standards for health and safety, that’s one of the things a trade agreement can’t give away. When I called (the Chinese government representatives) and asked why they didn’t issue visas in a timely fashion for the FDA (inspectors to inspect their facilities), they said the individual in charge retired….That’s a pretty lame excuse to be honest with you.”

            Durbin continues that in a very recent conversation with the Chinese ambassador, “He made it clear the items here (tainted wheat and rice protein) were not meant for consumption, either animal or human. He said that’s clearly a part of the declaration of shipment. That was news to me. And we still haven’t verified that.”

            Durbin says ultimately the United States should be responsible for our own foods, human and pet foods, not the Chinese or anyone else. And he’s introduced a new food safety bill with Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) (The Safe Food Act – S. 654 and H.R. 1148 in the U.S. Senate and House respectively)

            “There’s no reason to believe that this (what occurred to contaminate pet foods) couldn’t have happened to human foods,” adds Durbin. “When you consider the FDA inspects one out of about 100 shipments (of food) that come into the U.S., the odds are 99 to one that something terrible is going to happen. I’ve been concerned about food safety for a very long time,” he says. “It’s sad we’ve had to learn the hard way as so many pets have become sick or died.”

            According to the Centers for Disease Preventions and Control, 76 million people suffer food poisoning annually, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 of those die.  No one knows (or likely will ever know) how many pets (mostly cats) died as a result of the tainted pet food outbreak, Clinical veterinary pathologist and veterinary toxicologist Dr, Brent Hoff of the Animal Health Laboratory at Geulph Veterinary College in Ontario suggests the end result is near and will total around 100 pets who died in Canada, and several hundred in the U.S. He says numbers ranging well into the thousands of pet deaths in the U.S. as a result of the contaminated foods are likely exaggerated.

            Still, as a result of nationwide recalls of not only pet foods, but human foods in recent years tainted pork, spinach and peanut butter, United States Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rose DeLauro (D-CT) have introduced legislation that is intended to revise and update the nation’s food safety system.

            Here are the suggestions included in the proposed Safe Food Act:

  • Provide the FDA with the authority to recall contaminated or dangerous foods, which the FDA currently does not have. The FDA now relies on industry to voluntarily pull products from store shelves.
  • Establish an accurate early notification system for recalled human and pet foods. The legislation directs the FDA to work with veterinarians, and other professionals to disseminate information about pet food contamination.
  • Improve the FDA’s ability to regulate imported food products. Shipments of the tainted food substances imported from China were not inspected by the FDA. In fact, the FDA inspects only just over one per cent of all food imports. The FDA currently does not certify that trading partners have food safety standards at least equivalent to those of the U.S. This bill would direct the FDA to establish a certification program with trading partners exporting to the U.S. Foreign safety systems and plants would be inspected by the FDA prior to this certification. The Secretary would have authority to revoke certifications and deny importation is there is a public health risk.
  • Requirement of companies to maintain records and allow the FDA free accessibility. This provision would prevent delays that could keep contaminations from being traces as quickly as possible. In the case of recalled peanut butter (this past winter), an FDA report showed inspectors were denied documents.

            Durbin agrees with this reporter’s suggestions that aside from a comprehensive website (which is easy to navigate and accurate), a toll free number be created to learn about food recalls (human and pet foods). The number would operate 365 days, 24/7, and would offer up to date information on any recalled items for those who don’t have web access or find it difficult to navigate websites. Consumers could even call the number from cells phones when at retail stores if they’re unsure of what’s on the shelf.

            Another suggestion is to fine retailers who don’t pull recalled items off shelves promptly. Perhaps, additionally to ask retailers – as a sort of double-check safety procedure – to simply not allow scanners to check out any recalled human or pet food item. This procedure could be expanded to toys, pharmaceuticals, or any times which may be recalled for any reason.

            Durbin called these suggestions quite reasonable. He says, “They make good sense. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age with bar codes and scanners that we can’t stop the sale of the product once it’s recalled.”

            Of course, what concerns pet owners is tomorrow. What do they buy? Hoff urges pet owners not to give up on manufactured pet foods (though, for now, continue to be careful). He offered concerns of the practicality of most members of the public feeding pets from their own kitchens, and even increased worries about raw food diets, and their potential to cause problems. “After a plane crash, the industry improves, and we continue to fly,” he says. “We’ve had a plane crash, but I’m optimistic and I really believe we’ll have safer manufactured pet foods as a result. “

            Durbin adds, “At the end of the day, I think the products that will be sold in the United States will be safer (pet foods and human foods). Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of pain and anguish to get to this moment. But I think those in the industry will understand they have to be much more careful with their products in the future. It also means the Food and Drug Administration has to do a better job. They really have to be sensitive to the fact that when there’s a contamination of any kind in these shipments, it can put at risk pet foods as well as human foods.”