MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
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.
DAVID ACHESON: 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.
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: 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.
PETER KOVACS: 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.
WILLIAM HUBBARD: 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: Richard Knox, NPR News.
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