Monitoring Food Imports to the United States The contamination of pet food has raised questions about the safety of our own food supply as more of the food we eat comes from overseas. Les Bourquin of Michigan State University talks about how food inspectors decide what imports to monitor, and what they look for.
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Monitoring Food Imports to the United States

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Monitoring Food Imports to the United States

Monitoring Food Imports to the United States

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, the head of the Veterinary Section of the Food and Drug Administration told Congress that it cannot guarantee that all cans and pouches of contaminated pet food had been removed from store shelves.

An industrial chemical called melamine apparently contaminated the wheat gluten from China that's an ingredient in many foods produced by the Menu pet food company of Ontario. That pet food has been blamed for the deaths of at least 16 pets and many more deaths may have gone unreported.

It's not just pet food, of course, that's gone global. Americans routinely eat fruit and vegetables that were grown in far corners of the world, sometimes in places that do not match American standards for safety and sanitation.

We're joined now by Les Bourquin, who's an expert on food safety at Michigan State University.

Mr. Bourquin, thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. LES BOURQUIN (Food Science, Michigan State University): Thank you.

SIMON: And could - sir, could this have happened a can of pork and beans meant for human consumption?

PROF. BOURQUIN: Well, there are situations where there are accidental contaminations of food ingredients intended for humans that occur around the world. One very good example that is kind of near and dear to the State of Michigan is a few decades ago where a fire retardant was accidentally incorporated into animal feed and ended up in PBB contamination of cow's milk that was consumed by essentially all citizens in Michigan back in the late '60s. These things do happen from time to time, and hopefully, you can learn from them and make sure that they don't happen again.

SIMON: Is it possible, Mr. Bourquin, to absolutely guarantee food safety without making a potato cost $10?

PROF. BOURQUIN: Well, there's no absolute guarantee that all the foods that are produced and traded in commerce are 100 percent safe. There's always going to be some risk. The key is to make sure that you are doing what you can to focus on the most significant hazards and conducting appropriate surveillance to make sure that all actors in the food industry are playing by the correct set of rules.

SIMON: Mr. Bourquin, let me put you on the spot a little bit. When you go into a supermarket, is there something you just - as in really won't buy because you won't trust it?

PROF. BOURQUIN: Actually, I'm probably not a good person to ask this question to because I tend to eat almost anything. I tend to be a risk-taker. I travel enough a lot in my work. So I do get exposed to a lot of things. I do a lot of work in India. I visited China a few times.

SIMON: And what sort of advice do you give them about how to improve food safety for food that's going to be exported anywhere, or for that matter, consume locally?

PROF. BOURQUIN: I'll just give you one example. One of the programs that we operate here in Michigan State is a program called Partnerships for Food Industry Development, focusing on helping small farmers who produce fruits and vegetables produce safe products that can be either marketed in their domestic markets or exported to other countries.

Often times we have to focus particular attention on food hygiene issues, making certain that, for example, irrigation water or processing water is potable, is not a source of contamination; making sure that the chemicals that are used in productions are safe and approved around the world - really trying to bring them up to the level of the standards expected in international commerce.

SIMON: Mr. Bourquin, thank you very much for being with us.

PROF. BOURQUIN: Okay, thank you.

SIMON: Les Bourquin, an assistant professor of food science at Michigan State University.

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