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Was human food tainted too?

Suspect gluten went to plants that make products for people, FDA says

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- Tainted wheat gluten that triggered a massive nationwide pet food recall also ended up in processing plants that prepare food consumed by people, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday. While agency leaders offered assurances that the nation's food supply remains safe, they said they cannot yet completely rule out contamination of human food by the suspect wheat gluten, which contained melamine, a chemical found in plastics and pesticides.

According to import records, the wheat gluten was shipped to the United States from Nov. 3, 2006 to Jan. 23 of this year and contained "minimal labeling" to indicate whether it was intended for humans or animals. The vast majority went to pet food manufacturers and distributors, according to the FDA. But some of the processing plants that remain under FDA scrutiny make both human and pet food.

"To date, we have nothing that indicates it's gone into human food," said Dorothy Miller , director of the FDA's Office of Emergency Operations . "We have a bit more investigation to do."

The food scare began early last month when cats involved in a routine Menu Foods Ltd. taste trial refused to eat. Within days, the Canadian company alerted a university lab that assists with its testing that the cat food could be toxic. On March 16 , Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans and pouches of wet pet food. In recent days, the recall has grown to nearly 100 brands, including food manufactured by Del Monte Foods Co.'s pet products division, Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. , and Nestle Purina Pet Care Co.

Confused pet owners, reeling as the list of recalled products grows each day, will likely face more aftershocks. "It's impossible for us to say, at this time, that there won't be additional recalls," said David Elder , director of the FDA's Office of Enforcement . "We're continuing to follow the trail, and wherever the facts and the science lead us is where this investigation will be taken."

The FDA has traced the pet food problem to a single exporter , Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. in Wangdien , China , and is now blocking the company's wheat gluten shipments. The agency also is tracing the route of nearly three months' supply of the gluten in the United States, where it is used as a thickener.

Unlike a contaminant traced to the dirt in which food is grown or tainted water used for irrigation, the suspect ingredient in the pet food is unusual, said FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach . Bread products, in general, have not been at risk for problems, and wheat gluten undergoes some processing, which can lessen the risk a contaminant could pose. In addition, the contaminant is chemical , not microbial , making it "very unusual," von Eschenbach said.

Underscoring America's love affair with cats and dogs, the agency said it has received 9,400 complaints about pet food since the controversy began -- nearly double the number of complaints for all topics last year. In an "unprecedented" show of force, the FDA assigned 400 employees to track down the suspect shipments, field worried calls, and test 430 samples of potentially contaminated wet and dry food, said Michael Rogers , who directs FDA field investigations .

Glenn Daley , 45, of the Assonet section of Freetown, Mass. , was among the callers. Chance, a cat he rescued from the pound, ate dry food on week days and, for six weeks, got Menu Foods as a special treat on weekends.

"He loved the food," said Daley .

Shortly after a Jan. 12 veterinarian's visit that found the 10-year-old cat in good health, "he started going down hill," Daley said. Blood work showed that Chance had lost 95 percent of kidney function. He was euthanized on Feb. 27 .

Daley blames Menu Foods, saying the 10 pouches of Special Kitty food that he saved have product codes that match the recalled product.

"There is no doubt in my mind that was what it was," he said. "If we had known sooner there was a problem, we might not have had to put him down. That irritates us a bit."

Diedtra Henderson can be reached at dhenderson@globe.com.

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