WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Farmers will be allowed to sell 20 million chickens that were being held on farms that may have received feed contaminated with the chemical melamine, suspected in a rash of pet deaths, the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Monday.
The Agriculture Department said there was no need to quarantine livestock on farms where melamine or related compounds could not be detected in animal feed, perhaps because it makes up only a small share of the feed. A USDA spokesman said 20 million chickens were in that category.
Animals will be held on other hog and poultry farms, USDA said, where feed tests have found melamine, where feed samples have not been submitted for tests, or where feed samples are not available. Animal risk assessments will determine whether they will be culled or used for food, USDA said.
In the same announcement, scientists from five federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there was very low risk to people in meat coming from livestock that ate feed supplemented with pet food scraps that contained melamine. The scientists will now assess the health risk to livestock.
Poultry and hog feeders in several states bought salvaged pet food for use in feed rations for their animals. In some instances, wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate used in making the pet food contained melamine.
“In several cases, feed samples have tested negative for melamine and related compounds,” said USDA. “It is assumed that because only small amounts of the contaminated feed were mixed with other rations, the melamine and related compounds were no longer detectable.
“USDA has concluded that, based on the human risk assessment and the inability to detect melamine in the feed samples, these animals no longer need to be quarantined or withheld from processing.”
The government said it was monitoring imports of corn gluten, wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate and isolates that are destined for animal or human consumption.
Melamine has been found in wheat gluten and rice protein imported from China for use in some pet foods, leading to a recall of more than 100 brands.
Last week, USDA said as many as 3.1 million chickens at 38 farms in Indiana may have been given contaminated feed in early February and many were slaughtered for human food just a few weeks later.
Additionally, some 6,000 hogs in six states — California, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah — may have eaten tainted feed. USDA said more than 5,600 of the hogs are still living on the farm.