(CNN) — The Senate will hold hearings on the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of the growing recall of contaminated pet food, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat said Thursday.
“The FDA’s response to this situation has been tragically slow,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, told reporters in Chicago. “Pet owners deserve answers. The uncertainty about what is safe to feed their pets has gone on far too long.”
The recalled food has been linked to kidney failure in an undetermined number of dogs and cats.
The original recall, which began March 16, included more than 60 million cans of “cuts and gravy-style” wet cat food and dog food made by Menu Foods, the first manufacturer involved.
Since then, the recall has broadened to include some pet foods produced by Nestlé Purina PetCare Co., Del Monte Pet Products and Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
And on Thursday, Sunshine Mills in Red Bay, Alabama, said 20 types of large dog biscuits are contaminated with potentially toxic wheat gluten from China. The dog-treat maker said it has received no reports of death or illness related to the products.
Company spokesman Conrad Pitts told CNN it purchased the tainted wheat gluten from The Scoular Co. of Minneapolis. Scoular officials said they bought the product from ChemNutra Inc. in Las Vegas, which recalled the tainted wheat gluten on Monday.
ChemNutra obtained it from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd., a Chinese company.
The FDA has embargoed further imports of the Chinese company’s wheat gluten, which it has determined was contaminated with melamine — a component of fertilizers and plastic utensils.
The FDA and pet food producers say melamine should in no way be part of pet food manufacturing or processing. In response, Xuzhou Anying Biologic said it was astonished by the report but that it would cooperate with the U.S. investigation.
“We have never exported to the U.S. — we are a trading company. We don’t even know how we became implicated in this matter,” Mao Lijun, the company’s general manager, said Friday.
Asked if the company sold wheat gluten to another Chinese company that could have exported it to America, Lijun said he could not comment since the company was going through records to establish that.
The original recall announcement for Menu Foods covered products manufactured between December 3 and March 6. But on Thursday, the Ontario-based company widened it to include products dated back to November 8.
Although no new brands were added on Thursday’s amended list, Menu Foods added 20 varieties of pet food to the recall in response to ChemNutra’s recall announcement.
Still, there is no proof that melamine caused the kidney failures, said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. The limited evidence that exists about melamine indicates that, at least in laboratory animals, it is relatively nontoxic, Sundlof said.
“We are focusing on the melamine right now because we believe that, even if melamine is not the causative agent, it is somehow associated with the causative agent, so it serves as a marker,” he said. “We will, as time allows, look for additional toxic substances.”
Official figure of 16 deaths expected to grow
Sundlof acknowledged that the official count of 16 pet deaths linked to the food will increase.
“We know that there have been a lot more animals affected by this, made ill and have died,” he said. “Trying to put an estimate to it at this time is just not something we can do.”
He said the agency is in the process of defining how to confirm suspect cases. The FDA has received 12,000 complaints during the three weeks since the recall was announced — a number it would typically get over two years.
“Right now, our priority is still ensuring that all contaminated product is identified and removed from store shelves,” Sundlof said.
A pet owner community Web site, http://www.petconnection.com, said it has received reports of 3,240 pet deaths related to the recall.
The FDA is also working with the Veterinary Information Network, an online Web site where veterinarians can post cases that may be related. But such cases are anecdotal and have not been confirmed to be linked to the tainted products.
The agency has asked the Chinese government for help in tracking down the source of the problem, he said. The FDA said it has no evidence that any of the questionable wheat gluten has entered the human food supply.
About 1 percent of the U.S. pet food market has been affected by the various recalls, the FDA says.
Wednesday, plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Menu Foods related to the recall added fraud to the charges, their attorneys said. They are alleging the company may have known as early as December that there were problems with its product.
Menu Foods had no comment on the lawsuit.
CNN’s Katy Byron, Susie Xu and Miriam Falco contributed to this report.