Natural Foods Merchandiser

New food safety czar faces uphill battle

On the heels of the recent con?tam?inated pet food incident, which is suspected in the deaths of several thousand cats and dogs, the Food and Drug Administration announced the creation of a new position, assistant commissioner for food protection. On May 1, Dr. David Acheson was named to the post. As the first food-safety czar, he will be responsible for "the development of an agencywide, visionary strategy for food safety and defense," according to the agency.

The move did little to allay the concerns of either Congress or the public. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., criticized the FDA's action as simply a "reshuffling of management." On the same day the new czar was appointed, DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the Safe Food Act, which passed the Senate May 2 by a vote of 94-0 and is still pending in the House. The bill would significantly strengthen the FDA's authority to protect the nation's food supply.

Consumers—particularly those who lost pets because of tainted food—are still wondering how such contamination was possible. "In a free-market, laissez-faire system, things go right until they go brutally wrong," said Loren Israelsen, a natural products industry consultant and president of Salt Lake City-based LDI Group. "The fact is that there were problems all along, but there wasn't the interest or political will to do something about it until you have a disaster."

Israelsen said that as food imports have increased, the FDA's scope has grown, but its budget and staff have diminished. "It's mathematics," Israelsen said. "They simply can't be everywhere they need to be."

The new food safety bill, if passed by both houses of Congress, will grant the FDA powers many consumers assume the agency already has. Under current law, for example, the FDA can request a voluntary food recall, but has no authority to issue a mandatory recall. That would change if the bill becomes law. This limited recall authority was a key reason why the Government Accountability Office designated federal oversight of the food system as a high-risk area earlier this year.

The FDA also lacks authority to demand that companies provide records to the agency. For example, FDA inspectors visited the ConAgra processing plant implicated in the recent peanut butter salmonella outbreak as early as 2005, but plant operators refused to hand over requested documentation, and the FDA did not follow up.

"The Senate bill grants FDA authority it has long wanted," Israelsen said, "including recall authority and broader access to records." This latest scare, following on the heels of last fall's spinach-related E. coli outbreak and February's peanut butter recall, leaves lawmakers and consumer advocacy groups saying they have grave doubts about the FDA's ability to protect the food supply, for pets or humans.

On the same day the new FDA assis?tant commissioner position was announced, the agency revealed that as many as 3 million chickens fed melamine-tainted feed had entered the human food supply. The broilers have already been processed and sent to market. The breeding hens are under voluntary hold; they will be destroyed, and the farmers compensated for losses.

The previous week, the FDA announced that as many as 6,000 hogs also consumed feed tainted with industrial chemicals. The FDA said the hogs "cannot safely be sold to humans ... and should be euthanized at the farms where they have been held from the market." Most recently, the agency said some of the same contaminated product from China was used to make fish feed sold to U.S. fish farms.

"There's a very low risk to humans from foods containing melamine," an FDA official told The Natural Foods Merchandiser. "It's difficult to say at this point whether we'll find more [contaminated animals] in the food supply, because all of this comes as a total surprise to us."

Though food products are recalled on an ongoing basis, the latest episode seems to have galvanized public opinion and forced the government to confront food-safety issues. "In many ways, this is the perfect storm," Israelsen said. "It involves companion animals totally reliant on their owners, and owners who in good faith paid high prices for fancy pet foods, only to watch their animals get sick and die. Then it's revealed that the culprit was a chemical added in China to fake lab protein tests. ... It has quickly evolved into public outrage."

Even if the Safe Food Act is signed into law, the FDA will need both manpower and money to make the agency's oversight more effective. "The food side of FDA has been cut tremendously the last couple years in terms of personnel and budget," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "There have been a couple of probes, but the bottom line is that the government and administration have not provided a mandate to FDA to fix these problems."

Doyle said the FDA has, at most, 800 inspectors to cover upwards of 80,000 processing plants, and only about 1 percent of food imports are inspected, either through lab testing or visual testing. The Durbin-DeLauro bill would address this concern, requiring the FDA to develop a certification program for trading partners to ensure that food-safety systems and plants are inspected by the FDA before imports are allowed.

Though the Bush administration has starved the FDA's budget in recent years, the current outcry over safety issues may convince the administration that more funds are needed. "This has turned into an election issue, a voting issue," Israelsen said. "Under those circumstances, I'd be surprised if the White House did not support the changes being proposed."

That position was echoed by consumer advocacy groups such as the Consumers Union. "The FDA has been starved of resources for years," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for the Yonkers, N.Y.-based nonprofit. "The result is a food system that is not dependable and an agency not adequately protecting our nation's food supply."

Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p.12,19

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