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Tainted pet food factories shuttered

The Chinese close and clean up the plants before U.S. inspectors arrive.

By WASHINGTON POST
Published May 11, 2007


WASHINGTON - U.S. inspectors who arrived in China last week to investigate the two companies that exported tainted pet food ingredients found that the suspect facilities had been hastily closed down and cleaned up, federal officials said Thursday.

"There is nothing to be found. They are essentially shut down and not operating, " said Walter Batts, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration's office of international programs.

Word of the American team's inability to conduct a firsthand inspection came as investigators in this country learned that as many as 198 U.S. fish farms and hatcheries may have received fish feed contaminated with the chemical melamine, which came from the same two Chinese companies.

Federal officials said they are trying to figure out precisely how many of the hatcheries and farms received the chemically laced food and how many fish that were fed it may already have been released - either into streams or lakes for sportsmen to catch or onto grocery store shelves.

Despite the revelations, officials sought Thursday to put a positive face on the two-month-old scandal, which has already resulted in the inadvertent sale of millions of chickens that ate the tainted food and the ongoing quarantining of tens of thousands of hogs.

David Acheson, FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, said that despite appearances, U.S. investigators in China "have received good cooperation and support" from Chinese authorities.

And "consumers can feel reassured, " he said, that according to a federal risk analysis, they face virtually no increased health risks from eating fish that may have been given contaminated feed.

That risk assessment, based on evidence-based assumptions about how melamine concentrates in animals and its effects on people, found a "2, 000-fold safety margin, " Acheson said - meaning that even if the scientific assumptions used were considerably off base, the food would still be safe to eat.

Although the tainted ingredients were labeled as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, they have since been found to be wheat flour spiked with melamine, which gives flour the false chemical fingerprint of a high-protein product.

Ingredient samples were retrieved by Chinese authorities and are being analyzed by what Batts called "an independent lab."

"We presume we will have access to those results, " Batts said.