Farm-Raised Fish Given Tainted Food
Government Blames Chinese Wheat Flour; Analysis of Human Health Risk Planned
By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer, Wednesday, May 9, 2007
The tainted Chinese ingredient that was incorporated into U.S. pet food and later made its way into chicken and pig feed was neither wheat gluten nor rice protein as advertised, but was seriously contaminated wheat flour, government investigators said yesterday.
The finding adds a new layer of fraud to an already seamy tale of international deception.
Moreover, officials said, some of that contaminated flour, mislabeled as gluten, was mixed into fish food in Canada and exported to the United States, where it was fed to fish raised for human consumption.
Accordingly, some American fish may be laced with melamine, the industrial toxin whose spread has revealed in startling detail the many ways in which the food chains for pets, farm animals and humans are internationally intertwined.
"It shows the degree to which, with the globalization of agriculture, things that go wrong in one country can affect many of us who never thought we'd be touched," said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a biologist with advocacy group Environmental Defense. "Americans now need passports to travel just about anywhere, including Canada. It appears that food and even animal feed traveling from country to country should receive similar scrutiny."
A growing number of lawmakers are demanding a better system for tracking the sources of food and ingredients, their biochemical composition and their safety.
"Our food-safety system is broken," said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the subcommittee that funds the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. She has called for the creation of an independent food safety agency that would consolidate tasks now handled by a dozen or so agencies.
DeLauro ridiculed as overly complacent recent remarks by FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, who wrote in a USA Today commentary last week that the controversy has "demonstrated our effectiveness at detecting and containing a problem."
On the contrary, DeLauro said: "What we have is a fragmented legal and organizational structure without enough resources or authority to protect the public health."
FDA officials said they do not yet know how many U.S. fish farms may have used the tainted feed or what kind of fish may be affected. Some of the fish may have been sold to grocery stories and restaurants, and others may have been raised to stock lakes and rivers for fishermen, they said.
Government scientists said they will conduct a risk analysis to determine whether eating fish that were fed tainted feed raises human health concerns. A similar analysis completed last weekend concluded that chickens fed small amounts of contaminated pet food were safe to eat.
David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, said he is optimistic that the risks of eating fish will be minimal, even though contaminated ingredients may have made up a greater percentage of the fish feed than of the chicken feed.
Fish farming is a $1 billion industry in the United States. Most domestically raised fish are fed ingredients from the United States, said Randy MacMillan, president of the National Aquaculture Association in Charles Town, W.Va.
Channel catfish is the most prevalent U.S.-raised fish, and all 600 million pounds of it raised annually get only domestic ingredients, MacMillan said. Other top sellers include rainbow trout, tilapia and striped bass.
Separately, Acheson said tests had found that the tainted Chinese pet-food ingredients, which had entered the United States labeled as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, were in fact ordinary wheat flour.
Gluten is the high-protein constituent of flour that remains after starch has been removed. Investigators suspect that Chinese exporters boosted their profits by using cheap, unprocessed, low-protein flour and adding melamine, which gives false high-protein readings.
At least one food industry took comfort in the new finding.
"This is good news for the rice industry," said David Coia, a spokesman for the USA Rice Federation, a trade group. "Some food manufacturers had been asking for certification from suppliers that their rice products were in fact U.S. products and were not adulterated with melamine from China."