U.S. FDA Downplays Human Risk from Melamine Exposure
WASHINGTON -- A 130-pound person would have to consume 800 pounds of food laced with the industrial chemical melamine in a single day to reach a level that would be considered harmful, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department are investigating shipments of melamine-contaminated wheat gluten from China that was added into U.S. feed for pets, pigs, chickens and fish.
An updated FDA risk assessment showed little danger to humans because meat from livestock that ate the tainted feed would have little, if any, of the melamine left in it.
The government said even in "the most extreme" scenario -- if all the solid food a person consumed in a day contained melamine at the level present in meat from animals that ate the bad feed -- the exposure would still be 250 times lower than a dose considered safe.
Put another way, a person would have to eat more than 800 pounds of tainted food in 24 hours "to approach a level of consumption that would cause a health concern," according to FDA and USDA.
Dr. David Acheson, assistant FDA commissioner for food protection, also downplayed the risk to humans from eating tainted chicken, pork or other foods for a longer period of time. Low levels of melamine are excreted in the urine of animals that eat it and as a result would not harm hogs, pigs and humans, he said.
"You can speculate that longer-term exposure to lower levels would not lead to significant problems" for humans, Acheson told reporters.
Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said some of the imported wheat gluten contained as much as 10 percent melamine and related compounds.
"It is several, several orders of magnitude greater in the pet food than it would be in the meat from animals that may have received feed with a much lower amount of concentration in their diet," he said.
Unlike humans and livestock, because dogs and cats consumed feed with higher levels of melamine, it lead to a buildup of the chemical in their kidneys and resulted in death. Melamine is a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers.
Some pork and chicken meat from livestock that ate feed containing low levels of melamine may have entered the human food supply before the problem was discovered, but U.S. officials have not been able to determine the amount.
Kenneth Peterson, an assistant administrator at USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, said a study showed it was safe for humans to eat pork from hogs that consumed tainted feed.
Farmers will now be allowed to sell 56,000 hogs that ate the feed in question and were held on farms in California, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Kansas, Utah and Illinois. Producers will receive compensation from USDA for holding their animals.
A separate test is being conducted on poultry. Until results are back, 80,000 breeder chickens in Indiana cannot be processed.
Separately, USDA said two commercial fish farms in Hawaii and Washington state received the feed. The fish are not allowed to be sold while tests are conducted to determine the levels of the chemical.
USDA said last week there was no need to quarantine livestock on farms where melamine could not be detected in animal feed. Animals will be held on other farms where feed tests have found melamine, where feed samples have not been submitted for tests, or where feed samples are not available until additional studies are conducted.
The FDA has restricted imports of all vegetable proteins from China and is not releasing the material until shippers provide documentation showing it to be free of melamine.