US food safety system is broken says former FDA official

In the wake of the peanut butter, vitamin A, spinach and pet food scares in the US, calls for greater scrutiny of the food supply have increased, but experts say contamination of the food supply will continue because there simply aren't the resources to adequately monitor burgeoning food imports.

This is the view of many in the food industry and those that regulate it. A former Food and Drug Administration official said there was little that could be done about the situation until FDA funding increased. "We've been warning about food safety since the '90s," said William Hubbard, who worked at the FDA until 2005. "Now the people at the FDA are frustrated. They have good solutions, but they can't do anything." The FDA inspects less than one per cent of imports. Former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler told a recent congressional hearing: "Our food-safety system in this country is broken."

One executive from a multinational food company noted the US was "sitting on a powder keg," especially in regard to its ability to monitor imported small batches that are increasingly common from burgeoning exporters like Asia and Latin America.

Food producers and suppliers are in turn ramping up their internal auditing systems, a process that will be assisted for supplements manufacturers by the impending publication of GMPs.

Larry Kolb, US operations president at Utah-based glucosamine and chondroitin specialists, TSI Health Sciences, imports much material from China and operates four facilities there. While he said his company employed intense batch-checking methods, it was impossible to be 100 per cent certain of all inputs when the source materials came from small farms and factories.

"The GMPs will help greatly as all companies will be forced to meet standards that can only improve quality across the board," he told FF&N at the recent Vitafoods trade show in Geneva. "In the meantime, companies can only do all they can to improve their auditing processes but there are some who don't seem that bothered by the situation and that is worrying."

Hubbard pointed to the inequality of the US Department of Agriculture, responsible for the meat supply, which has 10 times as many inspectors as the FDA and regularly sends inspectors abroad. "The USDA got the two things it needed — authority and resources," said Hubbard. "The FDA can't get either."

In response to the melamine pet food crisis, the FDA issued a letter to the food industry in which it warned that the food industry must know, "their manufacturing and packaging operators, ingredient suppliers, contract manufacturers and sources for all incoming materials."

There were 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths from food poisoning in the US last year while in the UK, the Food Safety Agency investigated 1300 food safety incidents.

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