Getting to the Bottom of Food Safety Issues

The chemical melamine, a contaminant tied to pet deaths and illnesses, was found mixed into the feed of 20 million chickens throughout the United States last week. Many Americans are waiting for FDA action.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The new food safeties are appointed to protect the U.S. food supply has limited power to do it. At least that's the view of a group that advocates more resources for the Food and Drug Administration. The food safety official was appointed after the chemical melamine turned up in pet food and then chicken feed. It's been traced back to China and this may not be an isolated threat.

William Hubbard works at the FDA for 27 years and now urges greater funding for it.

Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARD (Senior Adviser, Coalition for Stronger Food and Drugs Administration): Well, there's certainly been a huge upswing in food ingredient imports from developing countries in the last, say, decade. And there's no evidence that any of those imports have been grossly dangerous, although FDA does occasionally stop them. But the real issue in my view is that FDA can look at so little that problem foods could be slipping through.

INSKEEP: Is it just pet food that comes from some place like China?

Mr. HUBBARD: Oh, no. It's human food. From the developing countries, you're usually going to find things called food ingredients, things like emulsifiers, stabilizers, wheat and corn gluten, rice gluten - many of the kinds of things that food processors buy in this country to make a finished food.

These ingredients do go into our food, and increasingly, they're coming from places like China, India, sub-Saharan Africa, countries that have less developed regulatory systems. With the government, there is not taking responsibility to send us safe food. All the burden is on the FDA to find the problem.

INSKEEP: Well, let's say that a container of that food or food additive is loaded up in China…

Mr. HUBBARD: Right.

INSKEEP: …goes across the Pacific Ocean, lands at the port of Long Beach in California - extremely busy seaport. What power does the FDA have to investigate whether that food is contaminated or not?

Mr. HUBBARD: It has one power. It can open the container, examine it and sample it. It cannot require the Chinese to do anything. It cannot require tracking of the product. So the burden was put on FDA in 1906 many years ago when there were so fewer imports and you could visually inspect the food to see if there was a problem by opening, say, a barrel molasses.

In this modern world with these food ingredients coming in, it's a whole different situation. But FDA is still stuck with that old paradigm, and it has no people to do it.

INSKEEP: So in an ideal world - or at least some people's ideal world - you might be able to require the Chinese to do some things. You might be able to track the progress of tainted food, almost like an epidemiologist would. But in reality, you're saying what the FDA can do is inspect it as it arrives at the port.

Mr. HUBBARD: That's all they can do.

INSKEEP: How often does that happen?

Mr. HUBBARD: They do very few inspections. In fact, they only sample about 20,000 food products a year, and this year there will be approximately 13 million enter into the United States. So you can see the numbers are way out of proportion.

INSKEEP: We should mention, so that people know where you're coming from, that you're part of a group called the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, which I assume as what it says. You want more power for the FDA.

Mr. HUBBARD: Well, we don't - we really focus on funding. We believe that the FDA is so under resourced, it can't do its job. It can't do what people expect it to do.

INSKEEP: You mean maybe there could be twice as many inspections even without changing the rules or…

Mr. HUBBARD: That's right. The first place to start before you look at laws -in my view - is to beef up the inspection for us. Get people at these ports opening these containers. And that's sends a message, Steve, back to the exporting country - they're looking. But my fear is that right now, these exporters know the FDA is so weak and can't look that they can send us tainted food with impunity.

INSKEEP: William Hubbard was a career civil servant, a former associate commissioner at the FDA - the Food and Drug Administration. Thanks for coming by.

Mr. HUBBARD: Thank you, Steve.

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