Twice a week I sit in on the FDA's media teleconference regarding our growing food safety crisis, and twice a week I come away struck by the difference between what officials believe and what they actually know. As a born agnostic and a fan of science, I can fully appreciate the FDA's reluctance to express absolute certainty. But as a devoted father and pet owner, I can't help but find their reassurances less than reassuring.
First we were told that none of the adulterated wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate had made its way into the human food supply, and then we were informed that a mere 6,000 hogs had eaten feed contaminated by "salvaged" pet food. Next it was chickens. 3 million of them. Slaughtered, butchered and eaten by unsuspecting Americans.
Then 20 million more chickens, and today another 50,000 hogs... not to mention the God-knows-how-many fish in the US and Canada raised on farms now known to have received Canadian fish meal manufactured from contaminated Chinese flours.
Still... not to worry, we are told, because large manufacturers are "unlikely to have exposed their animals to large amounts of the tainted pet products."
Uh-oh. Qualified statements like that set off alarm bells, and every bell this scandal has rung thus far has been answered a few days later with another revelation. The practice of selling salvaged pet food for livestock feed is more widespread than previously acknowledged, encompassing nearly the entire US pet food manufacturing industry. Given what we know of these practices, and the nature of the livestock and feed industries, it is reasonable to speculate that hundreds of millions of U.S.-grown hogs, chickens and fish have been contaminated, dating back to November or July of 2006, or perhaps even further.
But not to worry, we are told, for even that only represents a small percentage of the 9 billion chickens raised in the U.S. annually, a number the FDA bizarrely considers to be "a small part of [our] overall diet." Affected hogs and chickens "appear to be healthy." Even if the boneless breast in your freezer does contain melamine, it's only a tiny amount. And besides, we are told, "we have no reason to believe" this poses a risk to human health.
I know I sometimes come off as a tad alarmist, but before you dismiss my skepticism lets first review what we know versus what we believe.
What we know:
- Tainted pet food has killed or sickened tens of thousands of cats and dogs, some dropping dead within a meal or two of first ingesting melamine and related compounds such as cyanuric acid.
- Autopsies have discovered "plasticized" cat kidneys, clogged with crystals comprised of equal parts melamine and cyanuric acid.
- Laboratory tests have have reproduced the formation of these crystals in a test tube by mixing melamine and cyanuric acid in the presence of urine.
- Tainted pet food containing melamine and cyanuric acid was "salvaged," and sold as livestock feed, contaminating untold millions of hogs and chickens.
- About three million chickens and several hundred hogs are known to have been slaughtered, butchered and presumably eaten. At least another 20 million chickens are known to have consumed contaminated feed.
What we believe:
- Tainted meat poses little risk to human health.
I would love to join my friends in the legacy media in reporting that our food supply is safe. I love food. I eat it every day. But I'm having trouble taking that leap of faith, not simply because of what we know, but because of what we don't know. For example, we have no idea if melamine/cyanuric acid crystals bio-accumulate in human kidneys over time, and we're not even sure exactly how long or how widely these toxins have contaminated our food supply.
And... despite USDA/FDA's recent assurance that contaminated meat is safe to eat, this "most extreme risk assessment scenario" was conducted without ever bothering to test melamine and cyanuric acid levels in the meat of contaminated hogs and chickens.
At least, that's what they told me. FDA spokesperson Julie Zawisza explained that "identifying these compounds in high protein environments (eg, muscle/tissue) is not that simple" and that they "are still working on a valid test."
Fair enough. So I asked Midwest Labs, a widely respected testing facility, if they could test "a pork chop or piece of chicken" as reliably as they could test, say, a can of dog food. Their response?
"We can certainly test a food item or a pet food item for melamine. Their is a bit of prep work involved in testing a food sample for melamine, but this is certainly not a problem. Testing muscle tissue will only give a different consistency to the prepped sample. Neither should be a problem."
When USDA/FDA released contaminated animals from quarantine, and approved them for market, they did so without ever directly testing the meat, and with no restriction on the sale or consumption of organs such as liver or kidney, where the melamine/cyanuric acid crystals are known to accumulate... organ meat that millions of Americans do consume on a regular basis, sometimes knowingly.
USDA/FDA say they believe the melamine level in meat would be very low, but they haven't bothered to test it. They say they believe melamine is nontoxic to humans, but then, a few months ago we believed it was nontoxic to dogs and cats too. They say they believe that there have been no human health problems due to eating tainted pork and chicken, but admit that the Centers for Disease Control has "limited ability to detect subtle problems due to melamine and melamine-related compounds."
And while USDA/FDA have focused their efforts almost entirely on inspecting imports of vegetable protein concentrates, and on tracking contaminated product through the animal and human food supply, the import of processed foods, meat and farmed seafood products from China has continued unchecked and unabated, despite the obvious potential of contamination within China's own, largely unregulated, agriculture and food industries.
According to recent studies, 81-percent of America's seafood is imported, and about 40-percent of that is farmed. China is the world's aquaculture leader, accounting for about 70-percent of global production. It is also a major U.S. supplier of farm-raised shrimp, catfish, tilapia, carp, clams, eel and other aquaculture products.
We now know that it is common practice in China to spike the nitrogen level of livestock feed by adulterating the product with both scrap melamine and scrap cyanuric acid. And it has also been widely reported that this contaminated feed is routinely used in China's burgeoning aquaculture industry.
The chemical producers said it was common knowledge that for years cyanuric acid had been used in animal and fish feed. [...] "Cyanuric acid scrap can be added to animal feed," says Yu Luwei, general manager of Juancheng Ouya Chemical Company in Shandong Province. "I sell it to fish meal manufacturers and fish farmers. It can also be added to feed for other animals."
Fish physiology can leave them particularly prone to bio-accumulating certain contaminants, and the nature of common aquaculture practices tends to exacerbate the problem. Farmed seafood raised on a steady diet of contaminated feed would surely retain some of the toxins in its flesh. But as far as we know, no imported, Chinese aquaculture products have yet been tested.
The fact is, due to greed, negligence and uncontrolled Chinese capitalism our food supply has been widely contaminated by melamine and related compounds, and USDA, FDA, CDC and other government agencies have no idea what the long term human health effects might be. Throughout this unfolding crisis, the regulatory agencies tasked with assuring the safety and purity of our food supply have consistently downplayed the risk to humans -- a somewhat understandable attitude considering Chinese and American consumers have apparently been eating melamine-tainted food for months, if not years, with no known epidemiological impact. But given the harm to our pets, and the fact that kidney damage is cumulative and can remain asymptomatic until renal function is mostly lost, I wonder how many Americans would be willing to accept on blind faith USDA/FDA's reassurances that products containing "low" levels of melamine are perfectly safe to feed to our children?
Personally, I find it hard to believe.
[Read more from David Goldstein at HorsesAss.org]