Around 3 million chickens that are currently being sold in stores and supermarkets across America have been contaminated by the chemical melamine.
Melamine is used in industrial glues, fire retardants and fertilisers, and has so far killed a dozen cats and dogs that have eaten contaminated pet food.
The chemical has entered the human food chain because scraps of the pet food were added to the animal feed given to several thousand pigs and millions of chickens.
US health inspectors have traced the contamination back to Chinese suppliers, who added it to the pet food to make it appear their products contained more protein than they actually did.
Only 345 hogs that ate the contaminated feedstuff went to market, but inspectors fear that up to 3 million chickens may currently be for sale in the shops.
Inspectors stress that the contaminated meat poses a very low health risk to humans, but this will do little to assuage a public that believes there are too few controls on what is put into our food.
The Food and Drug Administration has responded by appointing a special commissioner on food protection, a move that has been met by equal measures of scepticism and disinterest.
Former FDA commissioner David Kessler points out that the FDA lacks teeth when it comes to food safety. "The fact is that the federal government has more authority to halt the distribution of dangerous toys than it has over unsafe food products," he said.
(Source: The Lancet, 2007; 369: 2575).
E-news broadcast 24 May 2007 No.362