|Ref: Recent pet food recall shows food supply vulnerability officials say
| 04.26.2007 | 07:31:55 | Views: 2021 |
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Ingredient imports underscore food supply vulnerability
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- The same food safety net that couldn't catch poisoned pet food ingredients from China has a much bigger hole.
Billions of dollars worth of foreign ingredients that Americans eat in everything from salad dressing to ice cream get a pass from overwhelmed inspectors, despite a rising tide of imports from countries with spotty records, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal trade and food data.
Well before contaminated shipments from China killed 16 cats and dogs and sickened thousands more, government food safety task forces worried about the potential human threat -- ingredients are hard to quarantine and can go virtually everywhere in a range of brand products.
When U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors at ports and border checkpoints look, they find shipments that are filthy or otherwise contaminated. They rarely bother to check in the first place, however, in part because ingredients aren't a priority.
By its own latest accounting, the FDA had enough inspectors to check only about 1 percent of the 8.9 million imported food shipments in fiscal year 2006. Topping the list were products with past problems, such as seafood and produce.
"I don't ever remember working on ingredients," said Carl R. Nielsen, a former FDA official whose job until he left in 2005 was to make sure field inspectors were checking the right imports. "That was the lowest priority, a low priority."
Because ingredients -- oils, spices, flours, gums and the like --haven't been blamed for killing humans, safety checks before they reach the supermarket shelf are effectively the responsibility of U.S. buyers. As the pet deaths showed, however, that system is far from secure.
Meanwhile, the ingredient trade is booming -- particularly since 2001, when the September 11 attacks focused attention on the security of the nation's food supply.
Over the past five years, the AP found, U.S. food makers prospecting for bargains more than doubled their business with low-cost countries such as Mexico, China and India. Those nations also have the most shipments fail the limited number of checks the FDA makes.
"You don't have to be a Ph.D. to figure out that ... if someone were to put some type of a toxic chemical into a product that's trusted, that could do a lot of damage before it's detected," said Michael Doyle, a microbiologist who directs the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.
Doyle sat on several federal task forces studying threats to U.S. food security; while they discussed ingredients, he said, their findings are classified.
Read down most any food package's label and there they are: strange-sounding substances that keep soft drinks fizzy, crackers crispy and sauces from gooing up. Gum arabic, extracted from acacia trees, helps give light whipped cream its texture; maltodextrin is derived from starchy foods, then can be dusted on chips so spices stick; caseins, a protein from milk, help the consistency of cheese substitutes.
While Americans are consuming more imported food and drink from preserved fruit to coffee, demand among U.S. food makers for overseas ingredients is increasing even faster.
In 2001, the United States imported about $4.4 billion worth of ingredients processed from plants or animals, AP's analysis shows. By last year that total leaped to $7.6 billion -- a 73 percent increase. Other food and drink imports rose from $38.3 billion to $63 billion -- up 65 percent.
No single reason explains the increase. Profits are one factor; changing consumer tastes play a role, too. There's a growing expectation that seasonal products will be available year round, while immigrants may hanker for familiar flavors and others want variety.
So U.S. food makers head overseas, where labor-intensive ingredients can be cheaper to produce in low-wage countries. They're not expensive to ship, either, because they're relatively compact and don't spoil easily, said David Closs, an expert in global food supply at Michigan State University.
To cope with limited resources, the FDA requires that overseas companies announce that a shipment is coming, notification that lets inspectors target products once they arrive.
That leaves quality control, by and large, to American buyers and their suppliers. If they don't do it, they run the risk of health problems that can devastate a brand and generate huge lawsuits.
But except in rare cases, companies don't have to prove that a shipment of ingredients is safe -- no tests must show that it's pesticide-free, for example -- and the FDA rarely checks whether overseas processing conditions are up to par. That contrasts with meat imports regulated by the Department of Agriculture, which must be processed under conditions equivalent to those here.
"Unless there's a known problem," Nielsen said, "it's going to fly through."
The FDA issued two brief statements in response to interview requests, saying imported food ingredients are treated "basically the same as with any food commodity" entering the United States.
"We use a risk management approach and any regulated product, including food ingredients, IS a priority to FDA if it poses a public health risk," one statement said. "If a food ingredient were to be identified as risk to public health, we are able to quickly shift resources to handle."
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