WASHINGTON -- Federal officials told Congress yesterday that some contaminated pet food probably remains on store shelves and warned retailers to make sure they've removed all recalled products.
The Food and Drug Administration said it has identified nearly all of the dog and cat food containing tainted wheat gluten that needs to be recalled, but senators urged the agency to strengthen its efforts to prevent a future scare.
"We know that there is not 100 percent of products off the shelves," Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said at a Senate hearing.
The recall, which began last month with certain wet pet foods and has expanded to include some dry products and 100 brands, has enraged pet owners and ignited criticism of the nation's food-safety system.
About 400 spot-checks at stores across the country prompted the FDA's latest warning. The inspections are part of a federal and state investigation into the deaths of at least 16 animals that ate Menu Foods products.
Investigators say they still don't know whether the chemical melamine imported from China and found in the pet foods caused the kidney problems that sickened animals, according to the FDA.
Sundlof told senators in the two-hour hearing that investigators hope to focus on the cause as soon as they finish identifying all of the tainted products.
"We believe that the recall has been very effective in preventing further illness and death in pets, and we believe that we've gotten the vast, vast majority off of the market," he said.
In a move sought by confused pet owners, the FDA released a single list naming all of the recalled brands. It can be found online at www.fda.gov/ora/fed_state/recalls/Recall.xls.
Despite the progress, some senators questioned the adequacy of the FDA's response and wondered whether the food-safety system needed an overhaul, especially in light of other recent outbreaks.
"What is the connection between E. coli on spinach and contaminated pet food? Unfortunately, it's the same broken food-safety system," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who called for consolidating food safety, now the province of 15 different agencies, into a single federal department.
Dr. Claudia A. Kirk, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine, testified that government needs to improve its tracking of ingredients and detection of safety issues.
Eric Nelson, president of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, said government needs to pay as much attention to the manufacture of pet foods as it does to their promotion.
Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, a veterinarian from Yorba Linda, Calif., said that pet food labeling needed to be more accurate and that pet food makers and the government needed to test products more extensively to assure long-term safety.
"Ingredients are not being tested individually before they are incorporated in pet food," she said.
The recall began last month when Menu Foods withdrew wet pet food after cats testing the products fell ill. As recently as Tuesday, the Ontario company added new products to its recall list after the FDA confirmed more contamination with melamine, a fertilizer that is also used in the production of cutlery and kitchenware.
As pressure mounts for strengthening government monitoring, the $15 billion-a-year pet food industry responded with its own efforts.
The Pet Food Institute said it was working with the World Health Organization to develop international standards for ingredients and had established a commission to investigate the cause of the scare and recommend preventive steps.
Duane Ekedahl, the institute's executive director, disputed the need for more government oversight, saying pet food was already highly regulated, "perhaps the most regulated product on a supermarket shelf." He also said the worst might be over.
"We're very hopeful that this is close to being behind us. Consumers can choose [pet foods] with confidence," Ekedahl said.
But pet owners said their confidence remains shattered.
"I don't trust Menu Foods or the FDA or any dog food company at this point," said Holly Reason, who is making her own food for her Yorkshire terrier. The Oklahoma City resident wants pet food labels to specify ingredients' country of origin and manufacturer.
Carissa Smolko, who suspects her cat's death three weeks ago was caused by contaminated food, though that particular brand hasn't been recalled, said she will no longer buy food for her two dogs from supermarkets.
Instead, she buys foods available at specialty stores and on the Internet that use human-grade ingredients.
"The foods I go with now - I trust them because they're very honest with where the ingredients come from and where they're manufactured," said Smolko, who recently moved to Buffalo, N.Y., from Baltimore County.