Federal officials on Friday placed a hold on 20 million chickens raised for market in several states because their feed was mixed with pet food containing an industrial chemical.
Three government agencies - the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency - are overseeing a risk assessment to determine whether the chickens would pose a threat to human health if eaten, USDA spokesman Keith Williams said. The assessment may be completed as early as Monday.
The 20 million chickens represent a tiny fraction of the 9 billion chickens raised each year in the United States. Meat from the birds can't go into commercial use without the USDA's inspection seal, which is being withheld until the risk assessment is completed, Williams said.
Which states have chicken producers affected by the hold will be announced later, Williams said. State agriculture officials as well as chicken manufacturers were being contacted as the agencies determine the extent of the problem, he said, adding that many farms in several states probably were involved.
Investigators found last week that about 5 percent of feed used at some smaller chicken production operations came from pet food tainted with the chemical melamine, Williams said. Larger manufacturers, because they usually use special feed for the chickens they raise or contract for raising, are unlikely to have exposed their animals to large amounts of the tainted pet products, he said.
As of Friday, no melamine had been detected in the feed used by larger manufacturers, Williams said. However, because investigators know some of the tainted pet food was used in that feed, officials still placed a hold on the birds, he said.
'Absent the risk assessment in this particular situation, USDA will not put the seal of inspection on this meat,' he said.
Since March 16, more than 100 brands of pet food have been recalled because they were contaminated with melamine. An unknown number of dogs and cats have been sickened or died after eating pet food tainted with the chemical.
Little risk to humans
The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said Thursday that no evidence indicated any harm to humans from chicken or pork that had entered the market after having eaten melamine-contaminated feed.
Federal investigators have been trying to determine how much of the tainted pet food had been used in feed for hogs and chickens. Hog farms in at least six states may have received tainted pet food for use in feed. Those animals also have been barred from market.
The USDA and FDA said this week that chicken feed in some farms in Indiana contained byproducts from pet food manufactured with contaminated wheat gluten imported from China.
At the time, the agencies estimated that 30 broiler poultry farms and eight breeder poultry farms in Indiana had received contaminated feed in early February. More farms probably received contaminated feed, the agencies said.
Williams said Friday that the risk assessment for chickens that had eaten feed with melamine would involve four aspects:
- The absence of melamine in feed used by large commercial producers.
- The dilution of the pet food with larger amounts of other ingredients in the feed.
- The healthy state of chickens that ate the feed.
- The lack of evidence of harm to humans by trace amounts of melamine because of the varied human diet and other factors.
Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House Appropriations' agriculture subcommittee and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Food Safety Caucus, said the link between the tainted pet food and chicken feed 'highlights the egregious holes in our food safety system.'