Consumers have reported the deaths of as many as 8,500 dogs and cats as a result of tainted pet food, federal officials said Thursday.
In the two months since reports of a few pet deaths led to a massive U.S. pet food recall, the Food and Drug Administration said about half of the calls to its hot line were from owners of deceased cats and dogs.
Officials said the agency had not confirmed those reports but added that the numbers of allegations were likely to rise as it caught up with a backlog of calls reporting sick or dead animals.
The statistics came as the FDA tried to reassure consumers about the food supply for both pets and humans. The pet food recall was expanded, food safety agents were dispatched to U.S. food manufacturers for inspections and Chinese authorities reportedly detained the head of a Chinese company suspected of shipping contaminated wheat gluten to U.S. pet food suppliers.
Canada-based Menu Foods Income Fund, which first identified a health risk in its products in March, expanded its recall list Wednesday to include 3 million more cans and pouches of pet food. The new list, adding to the company's previously announced recalls of more than 60 million cans and pouches, includes foods that may have been tainted by cross-contamination, Menu Foods said.
Federal officials traced the initial problem to protein concentrates imported from China that were tainted with melamine and other chemicals.
New food safety czar David Acheson said he wanted to assure consumers that the human food supply was safe. "It is very unlikely that there is a human health effect here," he said.
In addition to tightening import rules for similar food ingredients from China, the FDA said it had begun visiting domestic food makers to "raise awareness" and test Chinese ingredients.
Some of the tainted pet foods were sold for use in feed for 6,000 hogs and nearly 3 million chickens destined for human consumption.
Chinese authorities have detained the head of a Chinese company suspected of shipping melamine-contaminated wheat gluten to pet food suppliers in the U.S., according to a report in the New York Times.
The arrest of Mao Lijun, which police officials declined to confirm, came after he repeatedly denied in interviews that his company exported wheat gluten. Mao is the general manager of Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., based in Jiangsu province, north of Shanghai.
Until a few days ago, Xuzhou Anying's website said that the company's products included wheat gluten and ESB Protein Powder, an additive for animal feed that artificially boosts the protein content. The company, founded in 1995, said its "latest researched, developed and produced" ESB powder was "a new way to solve the problem of shortage of protein resource."
Said Zhang Huimin, president of Hebei Haojia Husbandry Co. in Handan, China, a protein additive maker that also uses melamine, "Don't be fooled by those names. Whatever they call it, NPN, ESB ... they are all the same, it's still melamine."
Goldman reported from Los Angeles and Lee from Shanghai.