Globalization Strains FDA Inspections
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The Food and Drugs Administration this past week stopped several species of seafood coming in from China. It's the latest in a series of problem with Chinese products entering the United States including toothpaste and pet food.
The FDA began to inspect foreign goods more than a century ago, but several health officials say the agency is fighting an uphill battle in its mission to protect consumers. William Hubbard is a former deputy commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration. He's now a senior advisor with the Coalition for a Stronger FDA - an advocacy group working to increase public support for the agency. He is in the studios of WUNC dorm(ph), North Carolina.
Mr. Hubbard, thanks a lot for joining us.
Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARD (Senior Adviser, Coalition for Stronger Food and Drug Administration): Hello, Liane. How are you?
HANSEN: I am well, thank you. Explain for us, why is it that china has become such a big issue for both the FDA and the U.S. consumer?
Mr. HUBBARD: Well, as the Chinese economy has exploded in recent years. They are exporting more and more products to United States and among those were food - particularly seafood. And the Chinese economy is not as advance as ours and their regulatory system is not, so FDA finds mini substandard food coming from China and they detained quite a few - deny entry to quite a few. And this concern a lot of it that's coming in that's not been adequately screened because of FDA's resource limitation.
HANSEN: What does the FDA screen for just in passing?
Mr. HUBBARD: They look for things like pesticides or illegal animal drugs that might have been used in a food or filth or other contaminants. There are many things that could contaminate food and FDA inspectors try to find those things. But again, it look - it's so little. There is a concern that much can get through that has not been adequately screened.
HANSEN: Has the FDA been able to hire more inspectors to keep up with the amount of time…
Mr. HUBBARD: There was brief bump up, Liane, after 9/11, but unfortunately those inspectors are all gone now as a result of budget cuts. Today, they only have about 450 inspectors at the borders looking at these imports. And this year, there will be about 20 million imports of FDA regulated products. And about 13 million of those will be food.
HANSEN: The pet food issue. I mean, this is about melamine. We've had the issue of Chinese toothpaste that has an ingredient usually found in anti-freeze. These are new challenges for the FDA, are they not?
Mr. HUBBARD: What FDA is finding is that there are lot of entrepreneurs in China who are willing to cut corners to, say, add a melamine to boost protein count over food or to substitute, say diethylene glycol with glycerin. And those things make a product perhaps more valuable - more saleable. The problem for us is they make the more dangers. And FDA can't find those type of things, then we're all at risk.
HANSEN: Why are these products with these ingredients slipping past the Chinese government?
Mr. HUBBARD: The problem is you've got a country that is growing rapidly. And the federal government often can't reach into these hinterlands where many of these food ingredients are originally produced. So it's a real challenge for the Chinese government.
HANSEN: Is there anything that can be done on the importer level? You know, for example, the goods have come into the country and then when the goods reach their destination, is there an inspection done there? What level of inspection is done there?
Mr. HUBBARD: There hasn't traditionally been very much. The food industry that receives these food does accepts some responsibility for testing and otherwise examining their raw ingredients but they depend mostly on the FDA to make sure the food is safe.
I think food processors in the United States are very worried now. They see that they can be victimized as much as the ultimate consumer can by an import that is not safe.
HANSEN: So, can they play a bigger role, do you think? Should they?
Mr. HUBBARD: I think they're trying to. They got a task force. They're looking at what they can do to better screen these products. But that applies mostly to the big firms. The small entrepreneurs, on which there are many in the United States, feel particularly victimized. They don't have laboratories. They don't have staff. They basically are buying these commodities on the raw market on the assumption that the FDA is screening them and making sure they're safe.
HANSEN: The toothpaste were destined for some American prisons - so these are government buys that we're talking about. Could there had been another level of inspection given that the government was buying some of these Chinese toothpaste?
Mr. HUBBARD: Well, apparently toothpaste is also being found in this like dollar stores. If we all go in these sort of discount stores, we see foods and drugs and cosmetics that are commonly coming from Asia that has - coming through sort of a discount process where buying the whole market or buying things that perhaps you wouldn't buy that large chain store. But clearly, a fair amount of toothpaste is being found and FDA is not being able to screen it, which is another marker for why there needs to be a stronger FDA.
HANSEN: So short of funding, more inspectors. What can the agency do about this?
Mr. HUBBARD: Well, obviously money is the first thing. To get more inspectors at the border and screen these products. If that doesn't work, Liane, some members of Congress believe there should be new legislation that give the FDA the authority to say to that foreign country you need to send us safe food. You need to take responsibility for assuring the food is safe before it ever gets put on the boat.
HANSEN: Can't public health officials get involved too?
Mr. HUBBARD: Well, I certainly hope that Official Washington is waking up to this as a result with melamine and the toothpaste and the fish. And of course in other countries, we've seen some outright poisoning with food with the diethylene glycol. And it's odd that they call it diethylene glycol, it's so in the news now because that is the compound that caused Congress to create the modern FDA in 1938. So, here we are 60 years later. That same compound is killing people around the world through contamination of drugs. It just shows that we haven't fixed the problems yet and we need to step up and do more.
HANSEN: Given the global market place at this point and the effects of free trade and nations like China getting into a major position in this market place, do you think it's ever going to be possible to completely protect U.S. consumers?
Mr. HUBBARD: No. You certainly can't have a 100 percent security. FDA experts tell me that they are concern that the word is out in these foreign countries. That you can send anything to the United States because there's no one there to check it out. And that's a bad, bad thing in my view.
HANSEN: William Hubbard is a former deputy commissioner with the Food And Drug Administration. He is now a senior adviser with the group known as the Coalition for a Stronger FDA and her joined us form the studios of WUNC and dorm, North Carolina. Mr. Hubbard, thanks a lot for your time.
Mr. HUBBARD: Thank you, Liane.
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