Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-20-2007 @ 07:24:20
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20 Million Chickens Given Tainted Feed
Birds Held From Market for Study

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007; A08

About 20 million chickens being raised for human consumption in several states ate feed made with melamine-tainted pet food and are being held from market to keep them from entering the food supply, Agriculture Department officials said last night.

The agency called for the "voluntary hold" late yesterday, pending completion of a government risk analysis to determine whether the animals would be safe for people to eat.

The move, which involves major brands, marked a significant escalation of the pet food scandal, which started with a few companion animals dying from food laced with tainted ingredients from and has grown to reveal big cracks in the human food safety system.

Last week, government officials found evidence that as many as 345 pigs and perhaps 3 million broiler chickens may have been sold for human food after having eaten contaminated feed. About 9 billion chickens are raised for slaughter in the each year.

officials have said they believe the health risks of eating meat from animals that were fed the contaminated material are small.

The 20 million live chickens being held were being raised for "large, brand-name growers," spokesman Keith Williams said. "These are names you would know."

The agency is not revealing the names, but Williams said the companies and the many contract growers that were raising the birds were cooperating fully with the hold.

Since the chickens were being raised for well-known brands, they were being fed a blend that is higher in quality than conventional chicken feed, Williams said. That means their food had a smaller percentage of pet food mixed in -- and lower overall doses of melamine, the industrial chemical recently found to have been mixed with Chinese wheat gluten and rice protein. Those materials were then imported into the United States and incorporated into more than 100 brands of pet food.

Thousands of pet deaths are being investigated for possible links to the contamination, and 60 million packages of pet food have been recalled since March.

Perhaps because of that lower dose in the feed, initial tests have found no measurable traces of melamine in the chickens, and the birds appear healthy -- elements that Williams said were encouraging.

Usually, he said, an animal fed "adulterated" food is by definition an "adulterated animal" and cannot get USDA's seal of inspection, a prerequisite for entering the commercial market. But in cases such as this, Williams said, in which government scientists have time to gather large amounts of information about actual risks, the agency believes it has the authority to release the animals for sale if the evidence for safety is compelling.

The USDA, FDA and are working up a joint risk assessment that will take into account what is known about the doses consumed by the chickens, the way melamine is broken down in animal bodies, the toxicity of melamine to humans and the amount of chicken most people eat. From that information, the agencies will calculate an estimate of the risks, if any, of eating the chickens.

That assessment may be complete as early as Monday, Williams said, or it may stretch further into next week. The agencies are under pressure from the growers, he said, who must continue to feed and invest in the birds without being certain about their fates.

Unknown is whether other chickens raised in recent weeks or months may also have eaten tainted food and since been slaughtered and sold.

Williams said it was not clear whether growers would be eligible for government reimbursement if a decision is made that the birds must be destroyed. He did not know the exact number of farms or states involved but said chickens were in "several" states.

Williams also said he did not know if the companies had come to the agency after realizing that their animals had been given feed containing tainted pet food or whether government investigators had made their way to the companies after following the trail of the food, which they have been doing for weeks. © ;2007 ;The Washington Post Company
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10-20-2007 @ 07:24:20