It may not just be rat poison that's causing dogs and cats across the country to become sick and die after eating Menu Foods' tainted products.
The Food and Drug Administration announced today that its scientists -- and an independent laboratory -- found a chemical commonly used in plastic in samples of the 60 million containers of wet pet food the Canadian company has recalled.
The FDA said those tests found melamine -- a chemical used in floor tiles, kitchenware, and fire retardant fabrics -- in Menu's tainted pet food.
Wheat gluten, a source of vegetable protein, is also used in some human foods, but the FDA emphasized it had found no indication that the contaminated ingredient had been used in food for people. The FDA said it would alert the public quickly if the melamine was found in any foods other than the recalled pet food.
The FDA also found the chemical in the ingredient the FDA suspects is the source of the contamination -- the wheat gluten the company imports from China.
And that melamine-contaminated wheat gluten, the FDA announced, might have been used to make dry dog food. If that's the case, the scope of this massive recall could be even wider.
Already, Hill's Pet Nutrition recalled its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry cat food. The food included wheat gluten from the same supplier that Menu Foods used. The recall doesn't involve any other Prescription Diet or Science Diet products, the company said.
"I just knew this was going to happen," one worried pet owner wrote on the PetConnection.com blog in response to today's news. "This is awful, just awful. Our poor beloved pets. They just don't stand a chance ... "
The FDA isn't sure how melamine -- which is used as fertilizer in Asia -- would have poisoned pets, said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
He said the contaminated wheat gluten was shipped to an unnamed company that manufactures dry pet food.
Only wet "cuts and gravy" style-pets food are involved in the Menu Foods recall.
The FDA is now investigating whether the melamine-tainted wheat gluten -- also imported from China --- was used to make any dry pet foods.
When asked if pet owners could be feeding unsafe food to their animals, Sundlof said: "It is possible, but I think we've been following every lead that we can. My sense is that we have gotten most of it under control."
Last week, New York officials announced they discovered the toxin aminopterin -- used as rat poison in other countries and as a cancer drug in the United States -- in Menu's contaminated products.
But the FDA said its tests -- and those by the outside lab -- did not reveal the rat poisoning in the recalled pet food. Or in the wheat gluten.
Cornell University officials, however, now confirm they found melamine in the urine and kidney of a sick cat. New York officials say they've detected that chemical, too.
Menu Foods has confirmed its recalled containers of pet food -- distributed throughout North America under 95 brands -- were made with wheat gluten from a new supplier.
But the company said it stopped using that supplier after cats and dogs that ate the its food showed signs of kidney failure or died.
Findings Support ASPCA
Today's announcement by the FDA supports findings released earlier this week by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
The animal rights group said data its veterinary toxicologists have analyzed indicated other contaminants might be involved in the tainted pet foods.
"Clinical signs reported in cats affected by the contaminated foods are not fully consistent with the ingestion of rat poison containing aminopterin that, according to Menu Foods, is at the 'root' of the contamination issue," the ASPCA said on March 27, 2007.
Dr. Steven Hansen, veterinary toxicologist and senior vice president with the ASPCA, added: "We've seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure. But the data that we've been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection, which is why we strongly recommend that those involved in the investigation continue to search for additional contaminants."
Dr. Hansen said animals poisoned with aminopterin should have additional symptoms.
"To be consistent with the effects of aminopterin, we should also be seeing a significant number of affected pets showing the accompanying signs of severe intestinal damage, as well as bone marrow suppression, including 'leukopenia,' which is a serious reduction in white blood cells," he said. "This is the missing connection ... there are so many inconsistencies in the purported link between aminopterin and the animals affected that we urge veterinary toxicologists and veterinary pathologists at diagnostic laboratories to continue looking for additional contaminants.
"Only continued rigorous testing will uncover the real reason or reasons for this crisis among our pet population."
The FDA confirmed 16 cats and dogs have died after eating Menu's contaminated food, but it expects that number to dramatically increase. The governmental agency has received more than 8,000 complaints from pet owners and veterinarians, and is testing hundreds of customer-submitted samples.
The contamination appears to be more deadly to cats than dogs, the FDA's Sundlof said.
Earlier this week, the Veterinarians Information Network, a Web site of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, announced its members have reported 104 deaths linked to Menu Foods' contaminated pet food.
The majority of those deaths -- 88 -- involved cats.
The Web site also received 11 reports of dogs dying after eating Menu Foods' tainted products. The remaining five deaths did not list a species.
In addition, VIN said its members have seen 471 cases of kidney failure since Menu Foods announced its massive recall on March 16, 2007.
The Web site PetConnection.com says it has -- as of March 30, 2007 -- received 2,400 unconfirmed reports of dog and cat deaths linked to Menu Foods.
As the investigation continues, pet owners are advised to watch their dogs and cats for symptoms of kidney failure, including loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, excessive drinking and either excessive or no urination.
Veterinarians, however, warn that animals do not show symptoms until about 70 percent of the kidney function is lost.
A complete list of the recalled pet foods is available at Menu Food's Web site: www.menufoods.com/recall or contact the company at (866) 463-6738 or (866) 895-2708.