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FDA falling down on food threats

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published April 29, 2007


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the nation's food supply. Recent news and testimony before a congressional subcommittee made one thing clear: The agency isn't up to the task.

Michael Armstrong understands the threat of tainted food only too well. Both of his young daughters were sickened and one nearly died after eating spinach contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria. "I can't protect them from spinach - only you guys can, " Armstrong told a House commerce subcommittee.

Indeed, Americans rely on their government to vouch for food safety, but the trust is often misplaced. The FDA had plenty of warning about the threat from fresh spinach grown in California and a problem at a Peter Pan peanut butter plant in Georgia whose product was tainted with salmonella. In both cases, the agency took no action until hundreds of consumers were poisoned.

Now, a new threat has emerged from imported foods and ingredients. More than 100 brands of pet food have been recalled because they contained wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine, and the threat extends to humans. Pigs in at least five states and chickens in Missouri were fed some of the contaminated pet food, and at least a few hundred hogs ended up in the food supply. It is unknown what harm if any would come to those eating that meat, though we likely haven't heard the end of this controversy.

More of our food products are coming from foreign countries, particularly China, that have dysfunctional inspection systems. Although the FDA inspects only a small fraction of imported food, the Washington Post reported, it frequently finds Chinese imports unacceptable, such as peas tainted with pesticide and filthy frozen seafood. Recently, Wal-Mart had to remove Chinese catfish fillets from its stores because the product was contaminated with a banned antibiotic. Imagine what slips through unchecked.

The FDA is a paper tiger. It can't order a recall of tainted food, except for baby formula, so it relies on voluntary compliance by the perpetrators. It can't impose penalties on companies that ignore recalls. It can't even force a company to report unsafe food products. (When it tried to do so with Peter Pan peanut butter, parent company ConAgra Foods demanded the request be put in writing, which never happened.)

Congress' mandate should be obvious. Give the FDA the resources and statutory power to really protect the food supply. In particular, the FDA should be required to do a better job of policing foreign imports. There are few governmental duties more important than making sure the food that goes into a child's mouth is safe to eat.