US food safety crisis provokes regulatory action

How the US goes about safeguarding its foods, supplements and ingredients supply has drawn a swift legislative response, in the wake of major recalls of spinach, peanut butter and pet food. Critics have stated that the volume of imports means the US is no longer able to guarantee the safety of its food supply, as evidenced by the recent Chinese ingredients scare. The US Congress has acted with a raft of legislation and proposed amendments to food legislation to gain greater control of the food supply.

However, in S.1022, the Human and Pet Food Safety Amendment to the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), food supplements do not form part of the amendments.

"We're glad the co-sponsors of this bill recognised that DSHEA and the recently enacted adverse event reporting legislation provide the necessary legal framework to protect public health," said David Seckman, executive director and CEO of the Natural Products Association. "We urged our champions in the Senate and their colleagues who sponsored this amendment to exclude dietary supplements and are pleased they were able to do so."

While that is a good result for the supplements industry, the issue of how to guarantee a safe food supply remains unresolved.

The Washington, DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest called for all Chinese grain imports, including rice protein and wheat gluten, to be banned until their safety could be guaranteed.

The US FDA created a new post, assistant commissioner for food protection, to protect against contaminated products. Other bills include "The Protect Consumers Act," which would grant the FDA and Department of Health and Human Services mandatory recall authority, and the "Human and Pet Food Safety Act of 2007," which would dramatically alter current law — one provision would demand foreign governments and companies submit themselves to the full authority of the FDA.

A Washington Post article observed, in relation to food imports from China, that many Chinese food products are not identifiable by lot number, making a recall or audit virtually impossible. It is not a situation peculiar to China, but China has been getting a lot of attention because its exports are so gargantuan.

"The issue is not China bashing but rather recognising the global food supply makes traceability, oversight and quality management increasingly difficult," said Loren Israelsen, president of the Utah-based United Natural Products Alliance. "This is true for virtually all categories of foods, not just supplements." He expressed concern at the proposed food and pet food amendments. "This bill is a very strong reaction to the pet food poisonings but will likely enjoy broad consumer and political support even if the bill is largely unworkable."

Bob Messenger, editor of opinionated food industry e-newsletter, The Morning Cup, said the food industry was losing the trust of the public. "Bad stuff can happen anywhere in the food chain. But the recent food recalls have really shaken Americans' confidence about the safety of the food they eat. They now understand, that, even in 2007, people and animals can get sick, and some can even die, from eating foods made by companies and brands they have trusted."

Len Monheit, president of NPI Center, said the ingredients industry could learn from the contaminants scare. "The current food safety issue in the United States will certainly not leave the supplements industry unscathed," he wrote in an NPI blog. "Less clear is whether the ultimate outcome will be positive or negative. Could this be the ingredient shakeout the industry has been needing for so long?" he asked. "Could this provide the much-needed impetus for companies to look closely at buying and sourcing practices? Could this resolve the issue of how much ingredient testing is necessary by manufacturers once and for all?"

These are all questions that the supplements industry will need to address. The task is not easy, with consumers being hooked on cheap goods and price pressures put on suppliers of all products, beyond foods and supplements. The better the nutritional ingredient supply chain can proactively address these quality issues, the better the chance of averting such a tragedy in its niche of industry.

China exported $2.26 billion of agricultural products to the US in 2006.

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