Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Food Safety Issues, Toxic Toys, And A Regulatory System In Disarray

It's time for our government to face facts: we have a serious problem with imported food and other goods coming to the United States from China. And it's time for our government to bring some real muscle (read: money) into the regulatory agencies--specifically, the FDA and the USDA--who are tasked with protecting American consumers from dangerous products. That we are currently inspecting only 1% of imports is nothing short of pathetic. That our most vulnerable citizens are also the most likely to be affected by dangerous products should put the fear of God into some of those pious, vote-seeking suits, many of whom who can undoubtedly recite the Beatitudes by heart without a trace of irony in their voices when they get to the Blessed are the poor; blessed are the hungry; blessed are the meek bits. Because the most vulnerable (and least politically valuable) among us are also those who are hit the hardest: lower-income families who buy non-brand toothpaste at discount stores, for example, and children of all backgrounds innocently playing with lead-tainted toys because they have no reason to think that adults in a foreign land somewhere would deliberately put their health in jeopardy. And, of course, animals.

This afternoon, I received a letter from my congressman, Bill Young , responding to my request that he support strengthening the FDA and even completely reforming the entire regulatory system, if need be. Referring to H.R. 2108, the Human and Pet Food Safety Act, Congressman Young writes:

With regard to your support for H.R. 2108, as you are aware, this bill would directly target the FDA's authority to prevent or react to human and pet food recalls in the future. Many constituents like you have expressed great displeasure with the FDA's response to the most recent pet food contamination as well as the agency's responsibility to fully protect the nation's food supply. Specifically, H.R. 2108 would provide the FDA with mandatory recall authority; require the FDA to establish adverse event reporting standards and penalties; and provide standing FDA authority to inspect overseas. The bill also will address surveillance and early detection issues that were so apparent earlier this year.

H.R. 2108 has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee where it awaits further consideration. Because of your interest in this matter, and in an effort to be of all possible assistance to you, I have taken the liberty of sharing your support for the Human and Pet Food Safety act with my colleagues on the committee. As they continue to review H.R. 2108, please know that they will keep your thoughts in mind.

Well, things appear to be moving in the right direction. I'd like to urge all U.S.-based readers to drop a line to their Congresspersons (you can find e-mail links and other contact information for all members at the House site). Squeaky wheels, critical mass, and all that.

Today, the New York Times brings us this unsettling story (my emphasis):

Over all, the number of products made in China that are being recalled in the United States by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has doubled in the last five years, driving the total number of recalls in the country to 467 last year, an annual record.

It also means that China today is responsible for about 60 percent of all product recalls, compared with 36 percent in 2000.

Much of the rise in China’s ranking on the recall list has to do with its corresponding surge as the world’s toy chest: toys made in China make up 70 to 80 percent of the toys sold in the country, according to the Toy Industry Association.

Combined with the recent scares in the United States of Chinese-made pet food, and globally of Chinese-made pharmaceuticals and toothpaste, the string of toy recalls is inspiring new demands for stepped-up enforcement of safety by United States regulators and importers, as well as by the government and industry in China.

It's not an exaggeration to say that we're in deep trouble with this whole imports-from-China mess. Very deep trouble. Numerous readers have suggested that since China holds so much of America's debt, our government is deliberately turning a blind eye to the dangerous food and other products they ship to our nation, container load after container load. Don't like our melamine-tainted wheat gluten? You'll come around to our way of thinking when we start calling in those notes, remarked one dry-witted reader. Others have noted that large multinational corporations--even American-based ones (perhaps especially American-based ones)--have such huge investments in China, they will frown on, if not fight outright, any attempts to regulate Chinese imports on the American end because such efforts would ultimately--and negatively--affect their own profit margins.

Then there are the counterfeiters. Everything can be faked! But an imitation Louis Vuitton purse sold on Canal Street in New York--legally and morally questionable a purchase as it may be (another argument for another post)--is one thing; fake glycerin in the form of diethylene glycol (also known as antifreeze) in cough syrup is another matter altogether. That stuff will kill you and your kids, as it has already, in tragic numbers, in Bangladesh, Haiti, Nigeria, Argentina, India and Panama.

So. We have to start somewhere, and it seems to me that fortifying our regulatory agencies with serious budget appropriations (so they can improve on that dismal 1% inspection rate, for one thing), giving them the authority to act quickly when the nation's food supply is threatened, and sending them abroad, if necessary, to conduct inspections are excellent ways to begin tackling a problem that will definitely grow larger and more unwieldy every year unless it is addressed. Unlike some countries, America has not lost thousands of children to poisoned medicine--yet. But as thousands of bereaved American dog and cat owners will sadly attest, we've most certainly had our own canary-in-the-coal-mine episode, and we can't sit around hoping that things work out on their own. Contact your Congresspersons and urge support for H.R. 2108, the Human and Pet Food Safety Act.

Also at Shakesville.

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