Tuesday, April 24, 2007

House Begins Hearings On Food Safety; CSPI Calls For Import Ban

The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee begins hearings today to determine what can be done to protect the nation's food supply, while FDA officials admit food ingredients (as opposed to whole products) have received very little scrutiny:

LOS ANGELES - The same food safety net that couldn't catch poisoned pet food ingredients from China has a much bigger hole.

Billions of dollars' worth of foreign ingredients that Americans eat in everything from salad dressing to ice cream get a pass from overwhelmed inspectors, despite a rising tide of imports from countries with spotty records, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal trade and food data.


When U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors at ports and border checkpoints look, they find shipments that are filthy or otherwise contaminated. They rarely bother, however, in part because ingredients aren't a priority.

Because these oils, spices, flours, gums and the like haven't been blamed for killing humans, safety checks before they reach the supermarket shelf are effectively the responsibility of U.S. buyers.

As the pet deaths showed, however, that system is far from secure.

Meanwhile, the ingredient trade is booming - particularly since 2001, when the Sept. 11 attacks focused attention on the security of the nation's food supply.

During the past five years, the AP found, U.S. food makers prospecting for bargains more than doubled their business with low-cost countries such as Mexico, China and India.

Those nations also have the most shipments fail the limited number of checks the FDA makes.

"You don't have to be a Ph.D. to figure out that ... if someone were to put some type of a toxic chemical into a product that's trusted, that could do a lot of damage before it's detected," said Michael Doyle, a microbiologist who directs the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.

Writing for In These Times, Terry Allen observes (emphasis mine):

The problem with pet food—whether it’s ground steak or chopped rectum, sawdust or grain filler—is that with FDA approval, it can include ingredients that are putrid, disease-ridden, and filled with the chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

In addition to helping industrial food transform potential garbage, pet food also serves the restaurant industry by buying up tons of used and possibly carcinogenic grease.

And then there is the generous contribution made by pets themselves. The corpses of the 7 million homeless cats and dogs euthanized every year have to go somewhere. Many are sent to rendering plants, which sell their products—you guessed it—to the pet food industry. Some pet food manufacturers deny using rendered pets in cat and dog food, but the industry is secretive. FDA oversight is spottier than a Dalmatian, and, short of DNA testing, who’s to know?

Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) calls for a halt to all grain imports from China until the FDA can certify that they are free from poisons and pathogens:

WASHINGTON—The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should ban imports of wheat gluten, rice protein, and other grain products from China until the agency can certify that the products are free of chemical or microbial contamination, urged the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In a letter to FDA commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, CSPI recommended that FDA should also evaluate whether a ban is needed for other foods or ingredients coming from China—the source of the contaminated gluten linked to the largest-ever recall of pet food.


“If U.S. pets must serve as the ‘puppies in the coal mine,’ we urge FDA to heed the warning and take action now to ban grains and other grain products until the Chinese government and producers can guarantee that these imports are free of illegal and dangerous substances,” wrote CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson and CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. CSPI recognizes that while closing the borders to these food imports is a serious action, it is a necessary action for FDA, given its current budget shortfall and lack of food inspectors. FDA inspection staff has actually shrunk by 15 percent since 2003.

The letter was sent to FDA on the eve of oversight hearings in two House committees. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will start hearings today with victims from various outbreaks and industry representatives. In early May, the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Affairs will hold a hearing at which former FDA commissioners will discuss the funding gaps and their impact on the agency. Additional hearings will follow.

Legislation has also been introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) to create a unified food agency with modern authorities. Today, unlike the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA does not have programs in place to ensure that exporting countries maintain safety systems equivalent to those in the U.S. USDA also has a far bigger food-safety budget than FDA, even though more people get sick eating FDA-regulated foods. Such disparities are addressed in Durbin and DeLauro’s Safe Food Act by modernizing the food safety laws, which are over 100 years old.

I will write a note of encouragement (and thanks) to Senator Durbin and Congresswoman DeLauro; please join me.

Also at Shakesville.

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