Getting to the Bottom of Food Safety Issues
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
William Hubbard works at the FDA for 27 years and now urges greater funding for it.
WILLIAM HUBBARD: 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?
HUBBARD: 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...
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?
HUBBARD: 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.
HUBBARD: That's all they can do.
INSKEEP: How often does that happen?
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.
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...
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.
HUBBARD: Thank you, Steve.
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