Veterinarian who exposed pet food toxicity earns nomination for federal award

Dr. Renate Reimschussel honored for discovering the chemical reaction that spurred last year’s crisis

July 30, 2008 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The research biologist who discovered that melamine and related chemicals were at the center of last year’s pet food crisis is up against 29 finalists to receive the Service to America Medal, awarded next month.

Renate Reimschuessel, VMD, PhD, works as a biologist in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Research within the Center for Veterinary Medicine. According to FDA, Reimschuessel was able to determine how melamine and related chemicals in pet food were responsible for causing kidney damage in dogs and cats. Prior to her work, scientists had rejected the idea that melamine was contaminating pet food because they thought the chemical was non-toxic.

Reimschuessel theorized that melamine was combining with a similar chemical to form crystals in the kidneys of animals, causing damage that often resulting in death. She based her idea on reports from physicians who sometimes see kidney crystals in human chemotherapy patients. She demonstrated her theory by feeding melamine and cyanuric acid to fish.

To win over skeptics, Reimschuessel then proved that scientists weren’t seeing prolific crystals in all cases because most kidney tissues samples were being preserved in formalin, which dissolves them over time.

The biologist recently was honored by U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, who in the June 25 issue of the Congressional Record stated: “Dr. Reimschuessel’s research helped improve the way our government preserves scientific specimens and identified the ability of nontoxic compounds to become toxic when combined. These discoveries helped resolve an immediate crisis, and her continued efforts are helping protect the U.S. food supply from tainted imports and toxic chemical combinations.”

Service to America Awards go to federal employees who make significant contributions to the safety, health and wellbeing of Americans. Eight winners will be announced at a Sept. 16 ceremony in Washington DC.

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