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Congress convened hearings today on what should be done to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration. One of the things that came up was contamination of pet food with melamine, an industrial chemical that's not supposed to be found in food.

NPR's Richard Knox reports that the pet food episode illustrates a much bigger problem with the safety of imported food ingredients.

RICHARD KNOX: Chinese food producers say it's an open secret there that the chemical melamine is often used to spike wheat and rice products that are added to animal food. Because melamine is rich in nitrogen, adding it is a cheap way to make food ingredients look like they contain more protein than they really do. But FDA officials freely acknowledge that the contamination of pet food with melamine took them by surprise.

Dr. DAVID ACHESON (Assistant Commissioner for Food and Safety, FDA): Melamine is not something that is going to go high on the list of the toxic agents that you'd have concerns about. This illustrates the need to think outside the box.

KNOX: That's Dr. David Acheson, who, today, became the FDA's assistant commissioner for food safety, a new position. The FDA worries about known toxins and melamine, a byproduct of coal used to make plastics, wasn't known to be very toxic. But Acheson says the contamination of pet food, which is known to have killed 16 U.S. pets and sickened thousands of others, has taught scientists something new.

Dr. ACHESON: This situation has become more complex than just melamine. One of the things that we have learned in recent weeks is that this is not just melamine, but it's melamine-related compounds. It would appear from animal studies that are ongoing right now that the combination of melamine with the melamine-related compounds is actually a greater concern than just the melamine alone.

KNOX: In combination, these chemicals can cause crystals to form in the kidneys of an animal that eats contaminated food. Older animals and presumably humans would be more susceptible because they have lower kidney function. There's no evidence that people have been harmed by eating meat contaminated with melamine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking for cases of kidney failure that might be due to melamine but so far hasn't found any.

The FDA is now stopping all shipments of protein concentrates at the border until they can be tested for melamine. Experts say the melamine episode dramatically illustrates a major problem with the safety of food ingredients, more and more of which are coming from China. The problem is not just with the FDA. Peter Kovacs, a consultant for the food ingredient industry, says users of imported additives should have been more alert.

Mr. PETER KOVACS (Food ingredient industry consultant): It's fairly routine that you test the protein content by measuring the nitrogen level. And, of course, if the nitrogen level is too high, it should immediately give a concern why this product's reading is too high for nitrogen.

KNOX: The problem extends to additives such as vitamin C and vitamin A, much of which now come from China. Kovacs says a German manufacturer of infant formula recently found some vitamin A from China that was contaminated with bacteria, fortunately before it was added to the formula. William Hubbard, a former FDA official, who now works for the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, says the agency is ill equipped to deal with adulteration in a rising tide of food ingredients from abroad.

Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARD (Coalition for a Stronger FDA): This melamine example should be a wake-up call to decision makers in Washington that something needs to happen to improve the FDA import program. I think there's no question that this melamine example is a case of there but for the grace of God went some humans.

KNOX: Hubbard says the FDA needs many more food inspectors. He says it also needs more legal authority, not only to stop contaminated food at the border but to inspect the foreign food products before they're shipped, as the Department of Agriculture now does with imported beef.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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