December 7, 2007
by Diana Furchtgott-Roth
While parents are trying to avoid placing Chinese-made toys such as Aqua Dots, assembled with a toxic glue, and Thomas the Tank Engines that are painted with lead under the Christmas tree, there is a potentially greater challenge: ensuring the safety of imported foods their children and all of us eat every day.
This year Americans will buy about $14 billion worth of fruits and vegetables imported from all countries, with a majority of imports coming from Mexico, Canada, and Chile. That's 75% more than a decade ago and 42% more than five years ago. Purchases of imported meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are up 65% over the past decade.
Americans have high expectations about the safety of their food supply, domestic and imported. They expect the government to do a thorough review of it. If something goes wrong, they also expect the government to fix the problem. When an outbreak of E. coli occurred in October 2006, government scientists not only found that it originated in packaged spinach but also discovered the precise field in California where the spinach was grown.
Unfortunately such high expectations cannot be applied to imported foods. Sources of foods are farther away, and some governments don't want American inspectors poking around processing plants and farms.
Just look at last April's pet food scandal. It turns out that Chinese producers deliberately mixed toxic melanine with wheat flour to give the appearance of wheat gluten, which has a higher protein content and is more valuable. The melanine in pet foods was discovered only accidentally, when an American pet food company taste-tested two types of food on cats, and one group died.
Initially, China refused to let American inspectors into the country to visit the pet food factory. By the time the inspectors were given visas, the factory had been bull-dozed to the ground.
Given the millions of farms and factories worldwide that export to America, and the frequency of terrorist threats, it's remarkable how few food-related problems we have.
Our government does a thorough job of inspecting meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meat, poultry, and eggs, produced both domestically and abroad. On the Agriculture Department's Web site there is a list, by country, of factories permitted to export to America. These factories adhere to American standards and are subject to periodic inspections.
Congress gives the Agriculture Department $925 million to oversee one-fifth of America's food supply that is based on animal products. The other four-fifths are under the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, whose appropriation for food safety is only $385 million.
There is a mismatch here. FDA needs more money. FDA has the resources to check only 1% of food imported to America. That's a woefully small sample when we're engaged in a war with radical Muslim fundamentalists who call us "The Great Satan" and who don't blink at crashing planes into the World Trade Center, much less contaminating our food supply.
According to a former associate commissioner of the FDA and an adviser to the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, Bill Hubbard, "If people knew how weak FDA was, they would be shocked." He proposes doubling the FDA's budget, enabling the agency to hire more scientists and inspectors, and sample between 5% and 10% of imported food.
Last month, the FDA put out its Food Protection Plan, which focuses on prevention of contamination, both intentional and accidental. It contains a list of proposed legislative changes, some of which are so basic it's bewildering that Congress hasn't made them already.
For instance, the FDA wants Congressional authorization to prevent the entry of food from foreign businesses that fail to allow inspection by FDA officials. Currently, the FDA cannot refuse admission of food from companies that don't allow their farms or plants to be inspected in FDA's sampling process. The FDA also seeks authority from Congress to "require preventative controls to prevent intentional adulteration by terrorists or criminals at points of high vulnerability in the food chain." For example, it could require locks on tankers or trucks carrying milk that are parked overnight at rest stops.
On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held hearings on the Food Protection Plan. At the hearing, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, Mike Taylor, testified that the FDA cannot possibly be expected to check thoroughly all food arriving at the border, and that comprehensive industry accountability is needed. Firms who import need to make sure they meet American standards.
The president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Cal Dooley, also testified that more accountability is needed. He called for requiring every food importer to put in place a foreign supplier quality program that makes sure all imports meet FDA food safety standards. The multinational food company, Cargill, was independently cited by both Messrs. Taylor and Hubbard in phone conversations as an example of a company that takes import safety seriously. "They will not buy if they don't know where it's coming from," Mr. Hubbard said.
On Wednesday, Senators Casey and Grassley introduced the EAT SAFE Act, S 2418, which would authorize $31 million more for both the USDA and the FDA to monitor imports. This is a small step in the right direction, although the outlook for passage of this bill is unclear. Fortunately for shoppers who enjoy out-of season berries at Christmas dinner, Congress is not trying to make us give up imported food in the same way as it wants us give up imported energy. But contamination of the food supply, whether deliberate or accidental, can be lethal. Consumers would be wise to support measures that would increase food safety.
This Op-Ed was featured in The New York Sun of December 7, 2007.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute from 2005 to 2011.
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