Some 1,500 raccoon dogs bred for their fur have died after eating feed tainted with melamine, a veterinarian said Monday, raising questions about how widespread the industrial chemical is in China's food chain.
The revelation comes amid a crisis over dairy products tainted with melamine that has caused kidney stones in tens of thousands of Chinese children and has been linked to the deaths of four infants.
The raccoon dogs — a breed native to east Asia whose fur is used to trim coats and other clothing — died of kidney failure after eating the tainted feed, said Zhang Wenkui, a veterinary professor at Shenyang Agriculture University.
"First, we found melamine in the dogs' feed, and second, I found that 25 percent of the stones in the dogs' kidneys were made up of melamine," said Zhang, who performed a necropsy — an animal autopsy — on about a dozen dogs.
Deaths in recent weeks
Zhang declined to say when the animals died, but a report Monday in the Southern Metropolis Daily said the deaths occurred over the past two months.
The animal deaths were a reminder of last year's uproar over a Chinese-made pet food ingredient containing melamine that was linked to the deaths of dozens of dogs and cats in the United States and touched off a massive pet food recall.
It was not immediately clear how the chemical entered the raccoon dog feed. But in the tainted-milk scandal and last year's pet food recall, melamine was believed to have been added to artificially boost nitrogen levels, making products seem higher in protein when tested.
At the time, China's product safety authorities revoked the business licenses of questionable firms, announced tougher guidelines and increased inspections. But the countless small, illegally operating manufacturers found throughout the country make monitoring difficult.
"It's still happening because it's enormously profitable. It's much cheaper to put melamine in as a nitrogen source than to put a real source in," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who wrote a book about the tainted pet food scandal.
"You're going to have this kind of thing until you have a food safety system that's adequate to oversee what's going on or provide enough of a deterrent that people doing this think there's too much of a chance they're going to get caught," she said.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior associate with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed.
"This is a problem throughout China where you have incentives that exist to produce things in a cheaper way to make greater profits, and people circumvent the regulations," she said. "The (central government) is trying to eliminate this, but the problem is that for the few factories you close down, there's another factory that pops up."
Raccoon dogs are not the only animals in China that have fallen victim to melamine-tainted products — a lion cub and two baby orangutans developed kidney stones last month at a zoo near Shanghai.
Hospital officials said the three baby animals had been nursed for more than a year with milk powder made by the Sanlu Group Co., which is at the center of the tainted milk crisis.
Melamine has been found in a wide range of Chinese-made dairy products over the past few months. The government is still trying to win back consumer confidence after tainted products turned up on store shelves around the world.
When ingested by humans, melamine — which is used in plastics and fertilizers — can cause kidney stones as the body tries to eliminate it, and in extreme cases can lead to kidney failure. Babies are particularly vulnerable.
Zhang said the company that produces the animal feed is in talks with breeders in Xishan, the village in Liaoning province where the dogs died, about providing compensation and has pressured them not to talk to the media.
Zhang did not give the company's name but the newspaper report said the feed was produced by Harbin Hualong Feed Co. The company refused to comment Monday, saying officials were unavailable because they were in a meeting.
An official surnamed Liu at the Liaoning provincial animal feed and medicine inspection center said the facility tested one sample of animal feed from Xishan and found it contained about 500 parts per million of melamine.
China's Health Ministry recently capped the amount of melamine permissible in milk and foods containing dairy products to 2.5 parts per million.
Liu said the center was assisting the Ministry of Agriculture in a nationwide inspection of animal feed but would not give any other details.