TOPICS > Politics

Global Food Chain Leads to Food Safety Challenges

April 26, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: After months of worries about spinach, lettuce and even peanut butter, the question of food safety is again under the microscope, thanks to a new scare. In recent weeks, more than 100 pet food manufacturers pulled their products after the deaths of more than a dozen animals.

Wheat gluten containing melamine, a nitrogen-rich industrial chemical that causes kidney failure, was to blame. It was imported from China. That same chemical is now showing up in hog feed. Farms in at least six states, including this one near Modesto, California, have been quarantined.

Last fall, grocery stores pulled thousands of bags of spinach from shelves, after an E. coli outbreak, caused by cow manure, killed three people and made nearly 200 ill. Seventy were sickened in December after eating at Taco Bell restaurants in the mid-Atlantic region. It turned out E. coli in the lettuce was to blame. In February, 400 people fell ill after eating Peter Pan-brand peanut butter infected with salmonella.

CONGRESSMAN: For the first panel, we have Michael and Elizabeth Armstrong…

JEFFREY BROWN: On Tuesday, some of those affected by the outbreaks put a human face on the issue in front of a congressional Subcommittee on Commerce. Michael and Elizabeth Armstrong’s two daughters fell ill after eating a salad made with bagged spinach. Ashley is still grappling with the effects.

ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG, Victim of Contaminated Food: We always enjoyed eating very healthy. We love fresh fruits and vegetables. Now we can’t eat them, one, because of Ashley’s illness — we have to watch the high potassium content in a lot of them — but, also, we just don’t trust that they’re safe anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some lawmakers broadened the issue to one of national security. Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said more has to be done to check food imports.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R), Tennessee: … however, according to the FDA, it only has enough inspectors to check about 1 percent of the 8.9 million imported food shipments that come into the country each year, 1 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Food recalls are currently controlled by the industry. But Democrat Diana DeGette of Colorado said that needs to change.

REP. DIANA DEGETTE (D), Colorado: It absolutely shocks people, when I explain to them that, during an outbreak in food-borne illness, like the ones we’ll hear about today, the federal government’s hands are tied when it comes to recalls. We must rely on the industry to voluntarily recall their products.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another piece of legislation, proposed by Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, would create an entirely new agency to track contaminated food outbreaks. It would combine elements of what the current Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department now juggle.

Problems with food inspection

JEFFREY BROWN: For more on all this, we turn to Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, and Tom Nassif, president and CEO of the Western Growers Association. His group represents about 3,000 growers and shippers in California and Arizona, accounting for about 50 percent of U.S. produce.

We invited the FDA to participate in this discussion, but the agency declined.

Ms. DeWaal, we just ticked off a few cases, recent cases. Do they point to a larger problem of food safety?

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL, Center for Science in the Public Interest: You know, Jeff, each of the outbreaks, starting with the spinach outbreak in the fall, the peanut butter outbreak this winter, and now the pet food outbreak, demonstrates a different weakness with the Food and Drug Administration's food safety program.

When it came to spinach, we had to ask, well, do they have authority to regulate on the farm? We think they do, but it was certainly a question. With peanut butter, it's like, where were the inspectors? This is part of the domestic food industry, but they're not inspecting enough. And, finally, with pet food, it demonstrated that imported foods are also not checked adequately to ensure their safety.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Nassif, how do you identify the chief weaknesses in the system?

TOM NASSIF, Western Growers Association: Well, first, let me say that our hearts go out to the Armstrong family and all the families who lost loved ones or whose loved ones or friends became ill.

Certainly, the FDA does have the right to regulate us. It does not have the manpower. The manpower it has is not necessarily experienced in agriculture. It doesn't have the funding to do all that is necessary to monitor a program like this.

As the statement earlier said, 99 percent of the imported products come in and are not inspected, giving rise to the potential for great harm in the United States, since most countries around the world don't have standards nearly as difficult and as stringent as ours are in the United States, and especially now in California with our new guidelines.

FDA's role

JEFFREY BROWN: Let's make sure we understand. Explain for us, Ms. DeWaal, the regimes that we're talking about here, what the FDA does as opposed to the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture?

CAROLINE SMITH DE WAAL: At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they visit meat plants that they regulate every single day. For meat slaughter plants, the plants can't even start to operate without a USDA inspector on the site and on the line, essentially.

At FDA, we have a much different program. They are more reactive, and their inspection budget has been cut to the point that they only can visit domestic food plants once every five to 10 years.

So, for example, in a pepperoni and cheese pizza, frozen pizza plant, the pepperoni pizza line, the one making pepperoni, cutting pepperonis and putting them on the pizza, would be inspected daily by USDA. But at FDA, the cheese pizza line would only get a visit once every five or so years from an FDA inspector, same plant, almost the same product, very different inspection programs.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mr. Nassif, you've both talked about the weaknesses at FDA, what they're able to do and unable to do. What needs to happen? Do they need to be strengthened? Do they need to be given more authority?

TOM NASSIF: What we've done in California is we've taken these measures into our own hands to make sure that we prepared good agricultural products and practices for agriculture that everybody was going to be bound by. We've got the United States government, through USDA and through the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to do the inspections and the audit process.

We want it to be mandatory on a state and a national level. We believe that regulation is imperative, whether it's regulation through FDA, through USDA, or through some combined agency.

Food industry's role

JEFFREY BROWN: But I want to be clear. Are you still suggesting that the industry itself would oversee itself in that sense and have the responsibility for doing the inspections?

TOM NASSIF: No, we would not. In California, we don't do any of the inspections. The state and federal government do all of the inspections. We pay for the whole process. We pay for the inspectors and the audits and all the administrative fees that are incurred by the United States government and by the state government.

We want to have a hand in developing these guidelines, because the farmers know a lot about how they can protect the crops. They need good science. They need good advice from FDA and every health agency and scientists around the country.

And that's what we did before we developed our own guidelines, but it has to be mandatory, and it has to involve the federal government in the inspection process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that the kind of partnership you'd like to see?

CAROLINE SMITH DE WAAL: We don't mind the fact that the industry wants to have a role in developing standards. The difference comes in the scope of how these are applied.

The California industry is moving forward with standards, but they're using a model that's really a quality model, enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's not a public health model. What we would like to see -- it also only affects California growers. If a spinach grower in New Jersey, for example, had the same problem California had last year, it could still cause a major outbreak.

So what we need is standards that apply across the board, to growers in California, Florida, New Jersey, anywhere in the U.S. where those products are grown. Also, the only way we're going to get standards that apply to imported produce is to have them set by the Food and Drug Administration. No other system would work there.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about enforcement, the ability for the FDA or some agency to go in and do its own recall? Right now, as I understand it, as we heard in our tape, it's left to the industry.


TOM NASSIF: The recall is not a problem.


TOM NASSIF: I'm sorry. To whom was that addressed?

JEFFREY BROWN: You can go ahead.

TOM NASSIF: Yes, recall is not a problem in our industry. We automatically recall any product that FDA tells us to recall. And if we didn't, the retailers and the food service industries would take it off the shelves and stop buying it. So recall is not the problem. That's done.

I think we have to put this problem in perspective. First of all, this outbreak, which was very sad and which affected 200 people who became ill, and three people who actually died from the outbreak, was the result of one farm being contaminated on one day, being processed by one processor, during one shift. And yet the entire industry throughout the United States was shut down.

Mexico stopped taking our spinach. Canada stopped taking our spinach. International markets were affected, but FDA never found out the source. They believe that perhaps some wild pigs tracked through a cattle ranch into the farm and contaminated some lettuce that got harvested on that particular day during a certain number of hours.

It's not an indictment of the industry; it's not an indictment of the product. We have an excellent health record, the Center for Disease Control estimates 76,000 illnesses and 5,000 deaths every year from food-borne illnesses. This particular outbreak, which is extremely serious in our industry, affected 200 people and the three who died.

And we're very sad about that. We'd like those numbers to be down to zero, but it is a natural product. We don't have a cooking step. It's grown, packed and harvested in a natural environment. We do need to take more precautions and, as better science develops, we will continue to improve our standards.

Regulating imported products

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, Ms. DeWaal, about the current case, the pet food contamination is about imported products.


JEFFREY BROWN: Now, is that different? Is that harder to regulate?

CAROLINE SMITH DE WAAL: It is harder to regulate, and we do rely on voluntary recall programs, both at USDA and FDA, and that's something that has to change.

But with imported product, it's much harder to track it back. And as we're seeing with the case of China not allowing the FDA inspectors in, it's much harder to actually identify the contamination sources, because they're not in this country.

Imported product is subject to very little regulation at FDA. At USDA, they have to approve the country before it can import meat. They have to approve the individual plant before it can ship meat to the U.S., and they check 20 percent of imported meat products. FDA doesn't do any of the preliminary country checks, and they just rely on 1 percent inspection at the border.

FDA needs a much better handle on what we're importing from China right now. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on Monday for FDA to actually ban grain products from China until they do have a program in place that assures the safety of those products.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Caroline Smith DeWaal and Tom Nassif, thank you both very much.


TOM NASSIF: Thank you.