updated 5/1/2007 8:13:25 PM ET 2007-05-02T00:13:25

Federal health investigators suspect that they will find more farms that received tainted animal feed but stressed Tuesday that the threat to people is minimal.

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The investigators are trying to get a handle on just how much pet food tainted with an industrial chemical called melamine made its way into products consumed by pets as well as by hogs and chickens.

On Monday, they announced that byproducts from tainted pet food had been used in chicken feed on some farms in Indiana. A few days earlier, they said that hog farms in six states may have received tainted pet food for use as feed.

The pet food in question could be to blame for a wave of dog and cat deaths in March due to kidney failure. However, Dr. David Acheson, an assistant commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, said the threat level to pets is greater than to livestock or humans.

“It was only a small portion of what the poultry was fed, and human consumers will only use poultry as a small portion of their diet,” Acheson said.

By contrast, pets often eat the same product exclusively, he said.

“The dilution factors here are enormous,” he said.

Officials said that as many as 3 million young chickens out of 9 billion slaughtered annually may have eaten feed that potentially included an ingredient containing the melamine. They have already been slaughtered for human consumption, but because there is no evidence that consumption is unsafe, no recall has been issued.

Acheson said that the investigation tracking contaminated pet food is complex and sweeping, which is why it could lead to the discovery of new states that are affected.

“There is a distinct possibility that it will broaden,” Acheson said. “I’m not saying that it will, but we need to be prepared for that to happen.”

Overall, the FDA has received about 17,000 calls alleging illness or death of a pet as a result of contaminated food. Of those, about 8,000 were entered into a database. Roughly half of those entered alleged an animal death.

The agency will investigate to determine whether the deaths are associated with the recalled products.

Ongoing concerns about food safety
The pet food scare as well as earlier discoveries of E. coli in spinach and salmonella in peanut butter has led to concerns about the safety of the nation’s food supply.

The FDA reacted to that concern Tuesday by naming Acheson as assistant commissioner for food protection. One of his first projects will be to develop a strategy that identifies potential gaps in the food safety system and what is necessary to address those gaps.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers announced their own plans Tuesday for addressing food safety. Two lawmakers introduced legislation that would give the FDA the power to order mandatory recalls of adulterated food products, plus establish fines for companies that don’t promptly report contaminated products.

“The evidence is clear our food safety system is collapsing and one of the main agencies charged with protecting it, is asleep,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Connecticut Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the House. “This needs to change immediately. It is time to transform the FDA from the toothless agency it has become to one that takes the proactive steps necessary to protect our food supply and the public health.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

Lawmakers’ concerns about the FDA also led to another hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday as three former commissioners testified that the agency needs more money for inspectors and more regulatory authority over producers and suppliers.

“The fact is that food is a second-tier priority within the FDA,” said Dr. David Kessler, who served as FDA commissioner in the administrations of the first President Bush and President Clinton.

Kessler said the federal government has more authority to halt the distribution of dangerous toys than it has over unsafe food products. And, the agency has no ability to impose fines on companies that are slow to remove unsafe foods.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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