SUNDAY OREGONIAN – FRONT PAGE TODAY
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A race to solve pet food mystery
Fears for humans – Scientists find substances but not the mechanism sickening cats and dogs
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Sunday, April 29, 2007, RICHARD READ and LYNNE TERRY The Oregonian
Cornell University toxicologist Joe Ebel peered last month at lines that crossed his computer screen, resembling hundreds of jagged mountains.
The previous fall, Ebel’s steady hands released an arrow that killed a 16-point buck, the second-largest deer bagged last year by a New York bow hunter. On March 26, in an urgent quest to save animals, his hands controlled a mass spectrometer, a machine that breaks materials into chemical parts.
Any one of the telltale peaks, Ebel knew, could identify the mysterious substance in wheat gluten imported from China that appeared to be killing cats and dogs, scaring pet owners, frustrating veterinarians and causing widespread product recalls.
Ebel, squinting through goggles, raced to find answers that could prevent further deaths and stop the unthinkable: contaminated food reaching U.S. dinner tables.
When a break finally came, Ebel stayed as calm as when he shot the white-tailed deer. There it was, a sharp spike depicting the same material Procter & Gamble Co. scientists had just implicated: melamine, an industrial chemical with no business in pet food.
Ebel and other scientists from New York to California asked how melamine, a substance made from ammonia and used in glues and laminate flooring, could cause acute renal failure, when chunks of it fed to dogs in one study merely made them urinate a lot.
It’s a question that still confounds U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials as they ask farmers to euthanize 6,000 hogs on farms that received tainted pet food.
It’s now a puzzle vexing scientists studying cyanuric acid. That substance has been found in stricken pets and by FDA investigators in rice protein concentrate at the same North Plains warehouse where melamine from China showed up.
Each day, members of the Cornell team, in Ithaca, N.Y., have discussed these questions with an expanding number of scientists across North America. They’ve searched for hundreds of potential culprits, helping rule out a rat poison, aminopterin, fingered by another New York lab. They still don’t know what led publicity-shy Procter & Gamble scientists to melamine.
The Cornell group has been impressed by the collaboration among high-octane experts from government, industry and universities. Together the scientists have scrambled to contain whatever, in Oregon alone, may have killed 46 dogs and cats and sickened 78 more.
At some research centers, such as the animal health laboratory at Canada’s University of Guelph, 18-hour days are taking their toll.
“This is getting a bit wearing,” says Grant Maxie, a clinical pathologist at the Ontario university, where scientists found strangely beautiful, large gold melamine crystals in dead animals’ urine and kidneys. “We started with aminopterin. And then on to melamine. Now on to cyanuric acid.
“What’s going to be next?”
During the week of March 26, the Monday that Ebel examined melamine’s profile on his screen, Richard Goldstein downed Diet Coke after midnight to stave off sleep in his overflowing campus office.
Goldstein, a Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine professor, is a renowned kidney specialist at the vet school rated first in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. He had spent all day dissolving melamine, aminopterin and wheat gluten in urine of varying acidity. Try as they might, Cornell team members could not replicate the crystals found in the stricken pets, let alone determine how they might hurt animals.
The search for a culprit had gone international, drawing on the best and brightest of veterinary science. At Guelph, clinical toxicologist and pathologist Brent Hoff, an amateur pilot who volunteers as a vet during off-time on Canadian and Caribbean islands, had acted on reports from Cornell, the University of Michigan and the University of California at Davis. Hoff and Maxie’s team posted Web photos of the distinctive melamine crystals they found in dead cats.
Recalls mushroomed. Thousands of pet owners called the FDA, learning that well-known brands such as Iams and Eukanuba were actually manufactured by other companies using imported ingredients. FDA officials had a theory: Profiteers in China had tricked U.S. importers by using inexpensive melamine to boost nitrogen, which buyers often measure to gauge protein content.
FDA scientists, gun-shy after the New York State Food Laboratory’s rat-poison finding fell flat, awaited further confirmation of melamine’s presence. The agency did not announce it until Friday, March 30.
The clock ticked past 2 a.m. Goldstein pored over papers dating from the 1920s. Ebel and others had proved melamine was present, but Goldstein could find no evidence that the substance was deadly.
After 3 a.m., he turned off the lights and headed home, eager for sleep before returning to the cat urine. Soon, he’d wake to the sounds of his wife, three kids and Mocha, the family’s 15-year-old dog.
Last weekend west of Portland, a stream of cars took the rural North Plains exit off U.S. 26 near Hillsboro. The vehicles turned past an espresso stand and a Union 76 station, snaking back south toward the highway.
FDA investigators, state agriculture officials and pet food representatives parked in a dusty lot near faded green metal sheds and warehouses. They entered a cavernous warehouse marked Van Dyke Grain Elevators Inc., a company with ties to San Francisco agricultural distributor Wilbur-Ellis Co.
There on April 4, according to Wilbur-Ellis, trucks delivered 144 1-ton bags of rice protein concentrate shipped from China’s Binzhou Futian Biology Technology Co. Ltd. All of the bags were white as usual, but one stuck out. It was pink and “melamine” was stenciled on the front.
Wilbur-Ellis notified authorities and isolated and tested the bags’ contents, finding melamine in the pink one and the others.
Last weekend, a company spokeswoman said, FDA investigators checked for cyanuric acid, the related substance found in infected pets. They detected it, says Ann Barlow of Peppercom Strategic Communications, which represents Wilbur-Ellis.
Bruce Akey, executive director of Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center, has been studying cyanuric acid, which has a high nitrogen content. Like melamine, the acid appears to be a marker found in sickened animals, if not a cause. It’s a familiar substance, a chemical routinely used in swimming pools to keep chlorine from breaking down in sunlight.
Heating melamine, Akey says, creates differing but slightly related compounds, one of which is cyanuric acid. Akey wonders whether some interaction of those substances could be causing damage.
In North Plains last weekend, the FDA investigators examined goods, weight slips and delivery documents, says Don Hansen, the Oregon state veterinarian. His staff members have helped contain the tainted goods and plan for their disposal.
The investigators, whose findings agency spokesmen decline to discuss, packed up their equipment. They drove out past the gas station and the coffee stand, the mystery unsolved.
Joe Ebel, the Cornell toxicologist, enjoys the challenge of the chase, preferring archery to hunting with a high-powered rifle and scope. Sometimes he hides in his tree stand, admiring a majestic buck he lets pass. The 54-year-old has hunted since he was 16.
Now Ebel is pursuing another moving target in a hunt that moved closer to the human food chain with revelations April 19 that hogs ate contaminated pet food sold to farms as salvage. In Oregon, two pets became sick as recently as last week.
Perhaps, Ebel muses, Akey and other scientists’ suspicions are well-founded. When companies cook pet food, melamine and cyanuric acid could fuse into something lethal. Maybe the heat combines those two substances with yet another compound in the chow, producing deadly crystals. To test all that, he figures, you’d have to feed animals stuff that would bring activists running.
“To do that kind of work,” says Ebel, pondering the magnitude, “it would be a Ph.D. project.”
Ebel has little time for abstract questions. On Friday evening he faced 26 new samples on his desk, including some hog feed and urine.
Ebel wants to go fishing on Lake Ontario. Instead, he’s spending this weekend at the lab.
Â©2007 The Oregonian44. susanUnPC Says: April 29th, 2007 at 2:59 pm
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Joseph Ebel Receives Individual Excellence Award
President David Skorton presented the Individual Excellence Award to Joseph Ebel, Manager of Technical Services for Toxicology at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center, on May 22, 2014.
Front row from left, Sarah Miller, Joseph Ebel, William Gilligan, Lindsay Jones Hansen; back row from left, David Skorton, Dorothy Vanderbilt, Karen Raponi and Mary Opperman.
Joe was recognized for his work on melamine analysis and credited for building Analytical Toxicology to be one of the leading veterinary toxicology labs in the U.S. Congratulations Joe!