American food is high risk for both natural and terrorist-related outbreaks and many in Congress are questioning whether the Food and Drug Administration can adequately protect Americans.
With increased reports of dangerous imported glutens, particularly from China, infecting pets and possibly humans, Representatives held one of a series of hearings today to determine how to strengthen our nation's food supply.
"This has become a systematic problem that requires systematic change," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said.
Representatives blamed the FDA's lack of power for the rash of recent food recalls.
"Every American has reason to worry about pathogens in our food supply that sickens 72 million and kill about 5,000 of us each year," Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said. "It is important we learn how much of this death and illness could have been prevented by diligent and properly funded regulatory agencies, primarily the Food and Drug Administration."
Foxes Guard Henhouse
The most-noted flaw in the FDA's authority is its complete inability to order a food recall. By law, the manufacturer or distributor must voluntarily recall the tainted products.
This shortcoming was dramatically illustrated over the weekend, when ConsumerAffairs.com's Lisa Wade McCormick reported that the FDA admitted knowing of five companies that received contaminated Chinese rice protein concentrate.
Three firms have identified themselves by announcing recalls; the other two are not publicly known because the FDA will not name them until the companies come forth voluntarily.
Currently, recalls are dependant upon the media to disseminate information and for consumers to be conscientious and well-read buyers.
DeGette has proposed legislation that will give the FDA and USDA the power to order recalls and also to increase recalls' effectiveness by forcing stores to remove dangerous products from shelves.
This morning's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing raised a continuing concern about imported foods from China, which has been at the center of the pet food recall. Recent reports claim the Chinese manufacturer purposely poisoned the wheat, rice and possibly corn glutens used in pet foods and to feed hogs.
After a handful of theories as to why pets around the country were dying, the FDA finally determined that Melamine, a toxic plastic, was to blame.
"Melamine is used in plastics and is not edible," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said. "In light of that fact, the FDA is investigating whether it was intentionally added to the wheat gluten or other ingredients to boost the protein content in order to make the products more valuable."
Many are convinced that it was no accident that the Chinese tainted the glutens.
"Regardless of whether they are wheat, rice or corn-based proteins, they share two characteristics," Dingell said. "First, they were contaminated deliberately. Second, they came from our trading partners in China."
Yesterday, the Chinese finally allowed FDA inspectors into the country to inspect the suspect processing plants. But that came after an initial request which the Chinese immediately turned down.
"China's foot-dragging in a public health incident is totally unacceptable," Barton said. "Building a great wall of bureaucracy between our experts and their problem is not going to make the problem disappear."
"The suspicion of international contamination is eerily similar to past incidents in China," Barton said. "A dozen years ago, 89 children in Haiti died after taking cough medicine made with, believe it or not, poisonous antifreeze that was traced back to China. The world never got an answer from the Chinese on how this crime occurred.
"In an investigation started in 1998 when I was the chairman of this subcommittee, we found that 155 Americans were sickened by impure gentamicin sulfate made by a Chinese firm," Barton continued. "We never got a definitive answer on how this unapproved, impure drug ingredient got into that particular product."
The poisoning of thousands of pets with dangerous food imported from China demonstrates how easily terrorists could kill Americans by poisoning food imported through a porous food inspection network.
"So far, the evidence suggests that the deliberate contamination was for greed and not as a trial run for terrorist purposes," Dingell said.
But a February Government Accountability Office report also concluded that the food network is a "high risk" and that terrorists could easily kill Americans through our own food.
There are a handful of bills pending in both the House and the Senate that seek to strengthen the food inspection network, but any preliminary vote on legislation appears months away at best.
The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold another hearing in approximately two weeks that will bring FDA officials to the stand.