ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.
“They have fewer people inspecting product at the ports than ever before,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “Until China gets programs in place to verify the safety of their products, they need to be inspected by U.S. inspectors. This open-door policy on food ingredients is an open invitation for an attack on the food supply, either intentional or unintentional.”
Now, with evidence mounting that the tainted wheat gluten came from China, American regulators have been granted permission to visit the region to conduct inspections of food treatment facilities.
The Food and Drug Administration has already banned imports of wheat gluten from China after it received more than 14,000 reports of pets believed to have been sickened by packaged food. And last week, the agency opened a criminal investigation in the case and searched the offices of at least one pet food supplier.
The Department of Agriculture has also stepped in. On Thursday, the agency ordered more than 6,000 hogs to be quarantined or slaughtered after some of the pet food ingredients laced with melamine were accidentally sent to hog farms in eight states, including California.
Scientists are now trying to determine whether melamine could be harmful to humans.
The pet food case is also putting China’s agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.
In recent years, for instance, China’s food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.