Taking You To the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine Press Conference


March 23, 2007. In a teleconference at 4:30 (ET) with the Food and Drug Administration, officials confirmed that the New York State Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell and the New York State Food Laboratory identified aminopterin (a folic acid inhibitor used both as a rodenticide and at one time as a cancer treatment in humans) in the recalled pet food. Although, they say they don’t know how it this could have gotten into the pet food supply.
            They added they have also not ruled out other additional causes for the deaths and illness in cats and dogs, which they say they are continuing to rule out.
            The panelists answering reporter questions were Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA; Dr. Daniel McChesney, director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance for the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA and Michael Rogers, supervisory consumer safety office at the office regulatory affairs at the FDA. Sundlof did most of the talking.
            The conference began with an opening statement from Sundlof before he took questions for reporters.
            In that statement he pointed out the recall has been expanded. Menu Foods has recalled all the products on the list, regardless of the date. It’s the same exact list of products but for all dates. The message is, for now, not to buy the products listed in the recall – no matter what the date on the package says.
            Sundlof said he does not know the number of pets affected, but later indicated that 14 pets that have died as a result of the tainted foods. There’s no comment on the number of animals who were ill and recovered, or who are now sick. He conceded many reports indicate many more have died, but he said he can only confirm 14.
            One point of major confusion is simply where to report if you believe your pet is ill or if your pet has succumbed as a result of eating contaminated food. I asked Sundlof, exactly where people should email or phone. Sundlof said the only place to report is through the state FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinators. He said there’s been some degradation of service because the lines have been overwhelmed with over 4,400 calls. “If you keep trying you’ll get through,” he said. In some places, staff has been added to handle the extra volume of calls. No other website, or reporting procedure is appropriate other than contacting the FDA.
            Sundlof said if you make a report to the FDA offer whatever information you can. and the more the better. He said, be prepared to answer ‘what food your pet consumed, and when.’ Also, what the veterinarian reports as the cause of death.’ He suggests to help clarify, pet owners who suspect their pet died as a result of eating the contaminated food should consider, “A post mortem examination including microscopic pathology so we can look at specific lesions. Then we can put all the information together and come up with whether it was likely the food or not. This takes time and follow-up with veterinarians. A part of the reason we don’t have good numbers (of fatalities) at this time.”
            He repeated he did not know how the contamination occurred in the first place, though he agreed with previous printed reports that wheat gluten is suspect. “Still, we have not limited our investigation to wheat gluten,” he added.
            Interestingly when one reporter asked about sabotage, he did not discount the question. He simply said, “We have not ruled out sabotage. We have no leads, and not even theories.”
            About wheat gluten. Sundlof said he wasn’t sure of the source (providing the ingredient), and was “checking into it.” He said the source may be outside the country, or there may be multiple sources. But then later when another reporter inquired, he did indicate “We know the broker (of the wheat gluten).” But he wouldn’t answer when a reporter asked who that broker is. He added, “We can confirm that (the wheat gluten used in these pet foods) has not made it into the human food supply. We believe there’s no risk to public health. Still, we can’t rule out that possibility entirely, so we’ve contacted our colleagues at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) to monitor for increased signals. We have no reason to believe whatsoever that this chemical has entered the human food supply.”
            That contaminant again, aminopterin, is pretty potent stuff, and not approved by the EPA in the US to control rodents. Interestingly a drug very closely aligned to aminopterin (methotrexate) is used to treat cancer patients.
            Not discussed at the press conference, but later veterinary toxicologist Dr. Steve Hansen, director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center told me that one potential adverse reaction (side effect) methotrexate is acute renal failure, the same illness that is affecting the pets who get sick as a result of eating the tainted food. (Methotrexate also inhibits DNA/RNA synthesis by inhibiting folate synthesis. From current evidence, it appears that aminopterin toxicity is analogous to methotrexate toxicity).
            Sundlof said “It’s very potent,” pointing out 3 milligrams per kilogram of aminopterin is toxic to rodents. He guessed that perhaps cats are more sensitive to the toxicity occurring in pet foods than dogs, hence explaining why reportedly more cats than dogs have been affected.
            Rogers said Menu Foods (the manufacturer responsible for these products, at their Kansas and New Jersey plants) is cooperating with the investigation. He also seemed to indicate that the reported deaths are all from products manufactured at the Kansas plant, but did not say or hint products manufactured in New Jersey would then be safe. No one from the press asked why Menu Foods has not returned press calls, and has a hotline number which never seems to operate.
            Sundlof conceded that his office has taken reports of pets being affected by dry foods, but he maintained none of those instances are confirmed. He insisted, “Dry pet food is safe.”
            I also asked Sundloff about eroding consumer confidence in pet foods, particularly moist foods and semi-moist foods, and opting to perhaps cook their own or to purchase so-called ‘raw diets.’ He replied, “We are concerned about that, about (people purchasing) raw diets which can contain harmful bacteria and be detrimental to pets. As a veterinarian myself, I want to make sure the public understands that we have not found hard evidence that animals had had ill effects from products that are not a part of this recall. We believe pet owners should continue to buy products outside the recall list, and they can feel confident.”
            Sundloff conclulded with a timeline: He said the FDA learned of the problem on March 15th. On March 16th, the FDA visited the plants. “Prior to us learning of the recall, the company had already sent samples for analysis to Cornell.”