If you think you are safe and only a very small percentage of companion animals have been affected by our horrid food inspection regulatory process, please think again. They are closing the number of labs that inspect our human foods, which of course filters down to those facility services available for pets. I have talked about this now a few times (go here and here and here to read about all of this if you’ve missed my earlier posts)
China’s food safety woes now a global concern
Pet food crisis focuses attention on frightening potential health hazards
SHANGHAI, China – The list of Chinese food exports rejected at American ports reads like a chef’s nightmare: pesticide-laden pea pods, drug-laced catfish, filthy plums and crawfish contaminated with salmonella.
Yet, it took a much more obscure item, contaminated wheat gluten, to focus U.S. public attention on a very real and frightening fact: China’s chronic food safety woes are now an international concern.
In recent weeks, scores of cats and dogs in America have died of kidney failure blamed on eating pet food containing gluten from China that was tainted with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, fertilizers and flame retardants. While humans aren’t believed at risk, the incident has sharpened concerns over China’s food exports and the limited ability of U.S. inspectors to catch problem shipments.
“This really shows the risks of food purity problems combining with international trade,” said Michiel Keyzer, director of the Center for World Food Studies at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit.
Just as with manufactured goods, exports of meat, produce, and processed foods from China have soared in recent years, prompting outcries from foreign farm sectors that are feeling pinched by low Chinese prices. Worried about losing access to foreign markets and stung by tainted food products scandals at home, China has in recent years tried to improve inspections, with limited success.
The problems the government faces are legion. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used in excess to boost yields while harmful antibiotics are widely administered to control disease in seafood and livestock. Rampant industrial pollution risks introducing heavy metals into the food chain.
Farmers have used cancer-causing industrial dye Sudan Red to boost the value of their eggs and fed an asthma medication to pigs to produce leaner meat. In a case that galvanized the public’s and government’s attention, shoddy infant formula with little or no nutritional value has been blamed for causing severe malnutrition in hundreds of babies and killing at least 12.
China’s Health Ministry reported almost 34,000 food-related illnesses in 2005, with spoiled food accounting for the largest number, followed by poisonous plants or animals and use of agricultural chemicals.
If you missed the hearing yesterday on these food-related issues, you missed allot. While there was much posturing from some of the questionable witnesses, Senator Durbin was certainly right on his game. My respect for him, and his efforts for many years now with respect to wanting to retool our entire food inspection system, is just huge. Here is his summary of the hearing and his recommendations:
Thursday, April 12, 2007 [WASHINGTON, DC] – At a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing today, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called on the Bush Administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take meaningful action in addressing problems in federal regulation of the pet food industry. The hearing comes in the wake of a widespread recall of contaminated pet food.
“Many cats, dogs and other pets, considered members of the family are now suffering as a result of a deeply flawed pet food inspection system,” said Durbin. “The FDA’s response to this situation has been wholly inadequate – we need to establish standardized inspections, impose penalties on companies who delay reporting health problems and increase communication between the FDA and the state inspectors so that we can catch potential problems more quickly. These sound like basics steps but the FDA has failed to put them in place.”
At the hearing, Durbin heard testimony from FDA officials and outside experts including Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, the Director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine; Duane Ekedahl, Executive Director of the Pet Food Institute; Eric Nelson, President of the American Association of Feed Control Officers; Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, Veterinarian and Dr. Claudia A. Kirk, Associate Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Durbin said the FDA’s response to the problem has been problematic and urged the FDA to take action in three specific areas:
1. Delay in reporting. According to materials supplied to Durbin’s office, it appears Menu Foods, Inc. first noticed a potential problem on February 20, 2007 but did not contact FDA until March 15, 2007. In the meantime, other companies were selling tainted product and the supplier wasn’t aware that it had provided wheat gluten contaminated with melamine. Durbin wants companies that delay reporting to the FDA and endanger human and animal health to face penalties.
2. Lack of inspections. According to testimony today, the Menu Foods facility in Emporia, Kansas where many of these products were made had never been inspected by the FDA. The agency has been relying on the states to conduct inspections, but the FDA has jurisdiction over all pet food manufacturing facilities and the ultimate responsibility to ensure facilities comply with FDA standards. Where there should be federal regulation, there is instead a patchwork of state inspection systems and voluntary guidance. Durbin wants to require the FDA to work with the states to establish a standardized set of regulations and inspection requirements.
3. Incomplete data and reporting from the FDA. Blogs and nonprofit websites have filled a gap and become the most efficient way to share information on contaminations. Durbin wants to direct the FDA to create a similar information sharing system that would allow state veterinarians, pet owners and others to alert the FDA of possible contaminations.
Durbin said the list of problems associated with food safety – both pet food and safety of the human food supply – is growing and the federal government must act.
The Illinois senator said legislation he has introduced to consolidate all federal food safety responsibilities into a single, independent agency has taken on new urgency because of a possibly heightened need to respond quickly and effectively to any acts of bioterrorism or agroterrorism. Currently, there are at least 12 different federal agencies and 35 different laws governing food safety. With overlapping jurisdictions, federal agencies often lack accountability on food safety-related issues.
“I did not call this hearing to create false concern, but we heard testimony today that the melamine-tainted wheat gluten was supplied as a ‘food grade’ additive and may have made it into the human food supply, but was pulled before anyone was harmed. This is very serious problem and we need to make changes to a system in which chronic shortcomings could turn critical,” Durbin said.
The non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has been unequivocal in its recommendation for consolidation of federal food safety programs. In February of this year, the GAO deemed federal oversight of food safety as “high risk” to the economy and public health and safety. Over the past two decades, GAO has also issued numerous reports on topics such as food recalls, food safety inspections and the transport of animal feeds. Each of these reports highlights the current fragmentation and inconsistent organization of the various agencies involved in food safety oversight.
Durbin and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have introduced legislation that calls for the development of a single food safety agency and the implementation of a food safety program to standardize American food safety activities (S 654 – The Safe Food Act.). Durbin and DeLauro have worked on this effort for over a decade in Congress and the bill has gained momentum from recent events.