Congress examines F.D.A.'s ability to assure the safety of the nation's food supply

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Members of the oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on April 24 heard heart-wrenching testimony from families harmed by the recent outbreaks of E. coli in spinach and lettuce and Salmonella in peanut butter during a hearing considering whether the Food and Drug Administration has the capacity to assure the safety and security of the nation’s food supply. Also giving testimony were a representative of the Government Accountability Office and executives of four food companies whose products were involved in recent outbreaks of food borne diseases among humans and pets.

The hearing took place against the backdrop of an expanding investigation into melamine contamination of pet food, with federal officials discovering last week some of the tainted pet food was sent to hog farms in at least six states, raising the prospect some of the melamine could have found its way into the domestic human food supply.

In opening statements, Democratic members of the subcommittee vowed to reintroduce legislation to authorize the F.D.A. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue mandatory recalls of products instead of relying on current voluntary recall procedures, and even calling for the consolidation of federal food safety oversight, now mostly divided between the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A., under a single federal agency. Both Republican and Democratic members of the subcommittee expressed concern F.D.A. funding was not adequate when measured against the agency’s responsibility to inspect not only domestically produced foods but the rapidly increasing food and ingredient imports from other nations.

Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, chairman of the subcommittee, noted officials of the F.D.A. would be called to testify in a couple of weeks. Mr. Stupak said even in the face of recent outbreaks of food borne illnesses, the F.D.A. seemed intent on centralizing food safety decision-making in Washington, while cutting back on field inspections and relying on food manufacturers to police themselves on the basis of F.D.A. guidelines.

Representative Ed Whitfield, ranking minority member, observed the F.D.A. cannot force a food safety disclosure, a recall or a plant closing except under extreme circumstances. Mr. Whitfield also noted in the 1970s, the F.D.A. received about half the funding allocated to food safety, whereas in recent years, its share of food safety expenditures have accounted for only about a quarter of the total. He said he expected the subcommittee to address those and other issues during the course of the hearings.

Representative John Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, in his opening statement, addressed the current concerns over melamine-contaminated wheat gluten imported from China that has led to the recall of pet foods in the U.S. and Canada.

"These protein products are pervasive," he said. "They are used in all manner of human food. The principal seller of the tainted pet food, Menu Foods, tells that only the highest grade of wheat gluten was ordered for their pet products. So, these important proteins that are imported by the ton could easily wind up in our pantries, restaurants or snack food vending machines.

"Regardless of whether they are wheat, rice or corn-based proteins (corn gluten imported by South Africa from China was thought to have been contaminated with melamine), they share two characteristics. First, they were contaminated deliberately. Second, they came from our trading partners in China."

Mr. Dingell noted melamine was added to the wheat gluten in order to make it appear its protein content was greater than it was. It was an act of greed, he said.

"While it matters not to the victims whether they are poisoned for profit or politics, we must be particularly concerned that these profiteers have drawn a roadmap to holes in our regulatory scheme," he noted.

Mr. Dingell lamented the dearth of funding invested in the F.D.A.

"I have watched the F.D.A. chase too many imports with too few resources for too many years," he said. "Whether the life-threatening product is a counterfeit drug or tainted food, the F.D.A. lacks enough properly and motivated personnel to do an increasingly difficult job."

Michael and Elizabeth Armstrong related how their young daughters, Ashley and Isabella, fell ill after eating packaged leafy greens contaminated

with E.coli. Ashley may require a kidney transplant, they said. Gary Pruden of Pennsylvania testified his son, Sean, took ill and was hospitalized shortly after eating lettuce at a fast-food restaurant.

In both cases, parents took the initiative to identify the cause of their children’s illnesses after hearing media reports of the outbreaks. They looked for more effective communication on the part of government agencies. Terri Marshall explained her elderly mother-in-law fell gravely ill on eating Salmonella-tainted peanut butter and still was struggling with the aftereffects of the contamination. Ms. Marshall decried the seeming lack of promptness in the recall and difficulties in receiving information.

Lisa Shames, acting director, natural resources and environment, U.S. Government Accountability Office, said the G.A.O. has designated food safety as a high-risk area Congress should address, particularly with regard to fragmentation of federal oversight and lack of mandatory recall authority.

"Our fragmented food safety system has resulted in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources," Ms. Shames said. "With 15 agencies collectively administering at least 30 laws related to food safety, the patchwork nature of the federal food safety oversight system calls into question whether the federal government can more efficiently and effectively protect our nation’s food supply. In addition, food recalls are voluntary, and the U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A., which have primary responsibility for food safety, have no authority to compel companies to carry out most recalls, except for F.D.A.’s authority to require a recall for infant formula."

Ms. Shames pointed to the disparity between the food safety funding provided the U.S.D.A. and that provided the F.D.A. She said while the F.D.A. has oversight for assuring the safety of 80% of the nation’s food supply, it is allocated only 24% of the resources the government provides for food safety. The U.S.D.A. receives most of the remainder for its inspection of meat, poultry and egg products. She noted U.S.D.A. personnel maintain continuous inspection in slaughter facilities and visit each processing plant at least once during each operating day.

"For foods under F.D.A.’s jurisdiction, however, federal law does not mandate the frequency of inspections," she said.

Ms. Shames said the G.A.O. has recommended Congress enact comprehensive, uniform and risk-based food safety legislation and commission the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct a detailed analysis of alternative organizational food safety structures.

"We also recommended that the executive branch reconvene the President’s Council on Food Safety to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety regulation and programs," she said.

She also argued the U.S.D.A. and F.D.A. should be given authority to issue mandatory recall orders, pointing out other government agencies regulating the safety of other products have such recall authority.

Four corporate executives gave testimony relating to how they changed operating procedures in the wake of outbreaks of food borne illness linked to their products. They included Charlie Sweatt, president, Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, Calif., whose fresh spinach was linked to the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that claimed the lives of three consumers; David Colo, senior vice-president of operations for ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, whose Peter Pan peanut butter was involved in a recent outbreak of Salmonella poisoning; Paul Henderson, chief executive officer, Menu Foods Income Fund, whose melamine-tainted pet food has killed an underdetermined number of dogs and cats; and Steve Miller, chief executive officer, ChemNutra Foods, Las Vegas, whose company imported the melamine-contaminated wheat gluten at the center of the ongoing pet food recall.

The complete written testimonies of each executive, as well as those of other witnesses, may be accessed on the web site of the Committee on Energy and Commerce ( But there were some items of special note in the executives’ testimonies.

Mr. Miller of ChemNutra pointed out no company or government agency tested for melamine before the current pet food recall, as it was a substance not known to be present in any food or ingredient. It also was a substance of unknown toxicity.

Mr. Henderson of Menu Foods, said, "It is difficult for manufacturers to inspect each supplier. The government, on the other hand, is in a better position to inspect and certify foreign suppliers of food products or ingredients in order for them to be permitted to sell their products into the U.S." He suggested foreign suppliers to the U.S. should be required to submit to inspection and certification by a U.S. agency or some other party accredited by the U.S. government.

He said Menu Foods would support increased F.D.A. inspections of plants but cautioned such measures would not have prevented the melamine problem.

All the executives said mandatory recall authority in the hands of the F.D.A. would have made no difference in how quickly their companies responded once they became aware of contamination problems.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 1, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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