March 30, 2007

Hills Pet Nutrition Recalls Dry Cat Food for Fear of Tainted Wheat Gluten


TORONTO (CP) - A massive North American pet food recall got even bigger Friday as Hills Pet Nutrition recalled one of its brands of dry cat kibble for fear it contained melamine, the same toxin that forced Menu Foods to pull "cuts and gravy" products from shelves across the continent.

Hills recalled its Prescription Diet m/d Feline Dry food after melamine, a chemical used as a fertilizer in Asia and also to make plastic kitchenware, was identified as the likely culprit in the Menu Foods recall - one of the largest of its kind ever in North America.

"Hill's is taking this precautionary action because during a two-month period in early 2007, wheat gluten for this product was provided by a company that also supplied wheat gluten to Menu Foods," the company said in a statement on its website.

"U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests of wheat gluten samples from this period show the presence of a small amount of melamine."

The recalled food represents less than 0.5 per cent of all Hill's products, the company said.

The tainted wheat gluten was produced in China and distributed by a lone unidentified American company, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Cornell University scientists said Friday.

Their findings contradict the New York State Food Laboratory's tests, which pointed to aminopterin - a rat poison - as the likely culprit.

The important thing is that officials have isolated wheat gluten as the tainted ingredient, said Paul Henderson, CEO of Menu Foods, the Mississauga, Ont., pet food manufacturer at the centre of one of the continent's largest-ever consumer-product recalls.

"Regardless of what might be the causative agent, the vehicle that delivered the problem into our supply chain was the wheat gluten," Henderson told a news conference Friday.

"The fact that we now have that comfort allows us to stand up and say that we're not using the wheat gluten anymore and that the products that were manufactured subsequent to the 6th of March are safe."

At a news conference in Washington, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said a batch of the tainted wheat gluten, provided by an unnamed American supplier, was also shipped to a company that manufactures dry pet food.

Officials are still trying to determine whether the company actually used any of the tainted wheat gluten in its dry pet food, said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Sundlof would not release the name of the dry food manufacturer, although no additional recalls have been announced.

Menu Foods (TSX:MEW.UN) announced March 16 it was recalling some 60 million cans and pouches of wet dog and cat food, all of it marketed under 95 different brand names, 10 days after concerns about the "cuts and gravy" style products first surfaced.

It remained unclear how melamine - a chemical used to make plastic kitchenware that's also used as a fertilizer in Asia, but banned for that purpose in the U.S. - found its way into the wheat gluten that was used in the manufacturing process, Henderson said.

Nor was it clear why earlier tests identified the foreign agent as aminopterin, a finding U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said they were unable to confirm.

Anecdotal evidence suggests hundreds, if not thousands, of animals have been affected. Henderson said Menu Foods has fielded more than 300,000 calls from concerned pet owners, and confirmed it will compensate customers for veterinary bills as a result.

The FDA said it has fielded about 8,000 complaints.

"All of us at Menu Foods want to express our sympathy to those people who have suffered with sickness and loss of pets," Henderson said.

"We are pet people. We have almost a thousand caring employees who are dedicated to making food that is safe, nutritious and palatable."

Henderson said Menu Foods has stopped using the wheat gluten supplier in question, but refused to name the company, saying U.S. authorities were still investigating and that the contamination could become the subject of legal action.

"One supplier's products were adulterated in a manner that was not part of any known screening process for wheat gluten," he said. "The source of that adulteration has been identified and removed from our system."

The news gave a boost to units of Menu Foods Income Fund, which closed 16 cents higher Friday at C$4.05 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Earlier Friday, the FDA said it found melamine in samples of the pet food, as well as in wheat gluten used as an ingredient in the "cuts-and-gravy" style products.

Cornell University scientists also found melamine in the urine of sick cats and in the kidney of one cat that died after eating the tainted food.

The FDA said it was working to rule out the possibility that the contaminated wheat gluten could have made it into any human food, but was not aware of any risk to people.