Monday, April 09, 2007

Environmental Cat--astrophe

Does the trail of tainted pet food lead to a fertilizer plant in Shandong?

America is much abubble concerning a mysterious string of pet deaths and illnesses.

Dogs and cats have been keeling over with kidney failure, apparently caused by pet food.

The smoking gun concerning the pet food connection may very well be the lone human casualty, a woman in Ottawa who bravely and almost fatally consumed her pet’s dog food in order to coax the recalcitrant mutt to eat its dinner.

As reported in the March 25 National Post, Woman sick after eating tainted pet food, by Melissa Arseniuk:

"I was trying to get her to eat," Ms. Larabie said, but Missy’s protest continued. Desperate, Ms. Larabie tried "just a little bite" of the Iams dog food to make the terrier think it was people food, then gave Missy the rest.

"I said, 'It’s not going to kill me to take a little bite' ... but I guess it could have," said Ms. Larabie...
The mealtime routine continued for about two weeks, until both dog and master became sick on March 17.

She—and her initially prudent but ultimately gullible dog—ended up under emergency medical care:

In this case, a canine and its master wound up in hospital — Missy at the Alta Vista Animal Hospital and Elaine Larabie at an after-hours emergency room.

"I thought I caught a virus, but then I realized I ate the food, and put two and two together," Ms. Larabie said.

For three days, she suffered a range of "confusing" and "embarrassing" symptoms, including loss of appetite, vomiting and foaming of the mouth. She also had problems urinating.

Pet food is being swept from the shelves in recalls, and there are dark suspicions of thousands of pet fatalities and millions of dollars in legal damages in the offing.

China comes into the picture because contaminated Chinese wheat gluten is the focus of US investigations.

The gluten’s exporter of record is one Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company.

It doesn’t produce wheat gluten but, in return for its investment in production of other vegetable-based protein powders, it apparently has trading rights to export wheat gluten and other feed additives.

Anying has discretely removed wheat gluten from its product list, but its offering survived on one of the innumerable Chinese on-line bulletin boards meant to facilitate business-to-business commerce (the magnificently named “Ubiquitous Value Network”; last I checked the server was down, but I had previously printed out Xuzhou’s solicitation to sell).

The spec is distinctive, a low quality material with wet-based protein > 64%, dry base > get the picture.

Anyway, the only place I could find offering that identical spec was an outfit in north-central Shandong, called the Binzhou Rongchang Biologic Technology Development Corp 滨州荣昌生物科技有限公司 .

Binzhou is in a wheat-producing area crisscrossed by tributaries of the Yellow River, with two large flour mills.

Unlike Xuzhou, Rongchang bills itself as a producer (and not just exporter) of wheat gluten (谷朊粉to the trade).

Not a 100% lock but certainly a good possibility that the wheat gluten came from Binzhou.

Having come up with a defendable hypothesis for the source of the wheat gluten, China Matters will engage in risky speculation.

Fortunately, we are not alone. The pet food poisoning has been something of a puzzle for a lot of experts.

Labs have been picking over the wheat gluten but have been unable to identify an unambiguously toxic component.

A lab at Cornell originally declared on March 23 that it had detected aminopterin—identified as a rat poison--in the wheat gluten.

That sounded promising: wheat + rats + poison + sloppy housekeeping = contamination.

But it turns out that aminopterin is an anti-leukemia drug. Its identification as a rat poison in actual use is a canard, based on a reference from an American Cyanamid patent.

According to the ASPCA, the descriptions of distress they are hearing aren’t consistent with aminopterin.

Also, the FDA couldn’t find aminopterin in its wheat gluten samples.

What they did find was melamine—up to 6.6% contamination, with the crystals “clearly visible” . And there were reports that melamine crystals were found in the kidneys of some deceased pets.

Problem is, melamine isn’t considered to be particularly toxic.

So scientists are theorizing about how the nitrogen in melamine somehow got converted into some highly toxic derivative that smoked the victims’ kidneys.

Well, what interested me about the whole issue was my mis-spent youth, much of it spent in Chinese grain and chemical plants.

Wheat gluten and melamine really don’t go together.

For one thing, melamine is considerably more expensive than wheat gluten. No unscrupulous exporter is going to cut wheat gluten with melamine to increase his profits.

Second, wheat gluten is produced in wheat milling plants in China’s grain handling and processing network using an old and simple technique. Then the stuff is bagged and sold to food and feed processors.

Users rely on wheat gluten’s ability to absorb a great deal of water and become sticky to make their products—like pet food—all yummy-gummy instead of slurping out of the can in disgustingly distinct streams of fat, water, innards, cereals, and whatever else goes in there.

There’s an international demand for wheat gluten, it’s one of the more profitable outputs available to the traditionally impoverished grain processors in China, and so Chinese plants are pretty keen to make it.

Melamine is produced in a chemical plant—in China, usually in a urea fertilizer plant under the chemical industry bureaucracy—using a relatively sophisticated process. Some of it is used as a fire retardant or fertilizer; most of it is shipped to plastics plants, where it’s polymerized with formaldehyde and turned into products like disposable plastic cutlery.

I’m pretty sure that both these products—relatively valuable and meant to be free of contamination—are bagged on site where they are produced. It’s quite unlikely that they would be shipped in bulk by rail car or, even if they were, that wheat gluten would end up in a chemical bulk car and get contaminated.

So, finding melamine in your wheat gluten is like opening your box of corn flakes and finding a fistful of moonrocks inside. It could happen—apparently it did happen—but it doesn’t seem likely.

I do have a theory.

There is one common thread between wheat gluten and melamine:


Wheat gluten production uses a lot of water. After the wheat kernel is broken up in the dry mill, a water wash separates the insoluble wheat gluten from the soluble wheat starch. Then the globs of wheat gluten are screened off and go through a drying process. Any insolubles in the water could be concentrated in the gluten.

The melamine production process happens to produce a lot of melamine-laced effluent water.

Melamine has low solubility in water, biodegrades poorly, and tends to hang around in the environment.

For the purposes of my theory, it is highly advantageous that upriver of Binzhou is the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Group, whose urea plant--one of China’s ancient, 1958 vintage demonstration plants-- also produces melamine.

I must now hasten to add that I do not know about conditions at these two plants. I don’t know if the two plants share a water source, if there are significant quantities of melamine in Mingshui’s effluent, or how the wheat gluten plant in Binzhou treats its incoming process water.

But right now, I’d say that the theory of impurities in the wheat gluten through use of melamine-contaminated process water looks as good as any.


Huffmun said...

If you go to the link "produce" near the bottom it links to a US patent for melamine in waster water. It shows there are a lot of other chemicals present. They are not familiar to me. Does anyone know how toxic these chemicals are? Could one of these by-products be the real cause of the illness in animals?

ShelliG said...

In it says the contamination could have been melanine-formaldehyde added to the gluten to increase its crosslinking and hence water absorption rate so LESS wheat gluten would need to added in order to achieve the desired gelling effect...

Unknown said...

New word is that mealimine was intentionally added to raise the wheat's protein content. What do you think of this theory?

Also, why is everybody completing ignoring the liability issues importers face in bringing in bad product from China. I know many importers who think as importers they face no liability, even though sometimes they are putting their own names on the product, essentially making themselves the manufacturer.

glassfrequency said...