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FDA: Tainted Wheat Originated At Minnesota Mill

August 22, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ A Minnesota mill was the source for tainted wheat that prompted a dog food recall, but a government official said today it is unlikely the wheat made it into the human food supply.

The Food and Drug Administration, concerned by reports of fungus invading wheat fields in the Midwest this year, plans to collect samples of flour and bran from mills and screen them.

Samples have already been taken from an undisclosed Minnesota mill and are being tested at a New Orleans laboratory, said Don Aird, spokesman for the FDA district office in Minneapolis. He expected the results later this week.

``A Minnesota company handled the wheat and sent it to the dog food company,″ he said this morning. ``This was very recent, maybe within the last couple of months.″

Aird said many mills in the Midwest are being tested because the company, Nature’s Recipe Pet Foods, gets its grain from more than one place. He would not identify the Minnesota company that handled the wheat or the mill’s location, but said Nature’s Recipe told the FDA the supplier was in Minnesota.

Government officials stressed there have been no recent reports of people getting sick from the toxin, called vomitoxin for the stomach upset it can cause. The dog food was contaminated by wheat grown in 1994; the FDA’s concern is this year’s crop.

``We would not expect it in human food, but we are going to look anyway,″ Aird said.

In July, Nature’s Recipe recalled most of its dry dog food amid complaints from hundreds of owners that their dogs lost their appetite or threw up.

``It’s a little unusual to have it affect dogs. You just don’t hear too much about it in pet animals,″ said Dr. Robert Poppenga, a veterinary toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school.

Vomitoxin, or deoxynivalenol, is one of the milder toxins produced by a family of fungi that flourish during rainy growing seasons, such as the one this year in the Midwest. Cases of people getting sick from vomitoxin have been reported in India and China.

``The primary effect is gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea and vomiting,″ said Sam Page, director of natural products at the FDA’s Food Safety and Applied Nutrition unit, which is conducting the study.

Page said the study was not prompted by vomitoxin’s appearance in dog food. Indeed, federal regulators also checked for vomitoxin in human food last year because of a serious 1993 outbreak caused by large-scale Midwest flooding.

``To our knowledge, this isn’t a real serious situation″ like the 1993 fungus outbreak, Page said in a recent interview.

Vomitoxin-tainted grain poses an economic threat to farmers who raise pigs and other livestock because it can suppress animals’ appetite and weight gain.

For humans, it’s more likely to find its way into wheat products such as pasta rather than bread, since baking flour requires higher quality wheat.

Nature’s Recipe Pet Foods, which is based in Corona, Calif., and has more than $50 million in annual sales, said it recalled and destroyed several thousand tons of dry dog food from stores and distributors. Tests detected vomitoxin in the food.

The company has since dropped its source for the wheat, a large grain supplier that Nature’s Recipe President Jeff Bennett only would identify as operating out of Minnesota and North Dakota and as a supplier for other pet-food manufacturers.

Several other makers of pet food, including the nation’s largest, Ralston Purina Co., said they had no reports of pets getting sick from tainted food.

Other toxin-producing fungi can pose bigger problems. Page said the FDA has not yet completed a study begun two years ago to determine whether a fungus commonly found in Midwest cornfields is contaminating food with fumonisin, a suspected carcinogen that has been known to kill farm animals.

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