TOPICS > Health

Extended Interview: Former FDA Official Discusses Food Safety

June 8, 2007 at 11:50 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: [Are] some of these foods that we have assembled right here … good examples of what we should be doing and isn’t happening?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well in fact, it’s really difficult to even find the processed food today that doesn’t have foreign ingredients. So virtually everything we’re eating is coming from foreign countries. The real question is: Can FDA screen those foods to make sure they’re safe?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what are they doing right now?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: FDA only has about 300 import inspectors to manage 13 million shipments of foreign food each year. So the real issue is will Congress beef up the FDA and allow it to check these foods out before they get to us?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How would they do it?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well the first thing you do is you open the containers and sample them and examine them. And of course you can also do things like ask the other country to take more steps to protect the food before they send it here. USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] could do that for meat, but FDA cannot do that for the product it regulates.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So for example, what would they do? Pick up one of these products and explain what they could do to examine for all the very different things that are in them that come from other countries. Just any example.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well for example, here’s a cereal that has small freeze-dried strawberries in it. They almost always come from China.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The strawberries do?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: The strawberries do. And FDA has found some contamination issues with those strawberries. The cereal of course, the final product is made here in the United States, but it uses foreign ingredients.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So they make the cereal here, but the strawberries in the cereal come from China.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: That’s correct. But the FDA finds tremendous problems from Asian countries in what they call filth. Just conditions in which the food is not being properly handled and it allows various pathogens…into the food before it arrives here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Let’s go back to just this one item, this box of cereal. And if I buy this in the supermarket, what are the chances, you’ve been there, what are the chances that if I eat something like this, that I or one of my children will get sick?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I believe it’s very low. American food processors take great steps to protect the food. The problem is, they can be victimized too by unscrupulous exporters who send us food that no one is looking at. So the issue is not whether our food is safe. It probably is in most cases. But there clearly can be things slipping through the net, much as we saw wheat gluten do with pet food.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And now they say it wasn’t in fact wheat gluten, it was wheat flour that was mislabeled as wheat gluten. That’s what they said yesterday.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: There are various compounds that are derivatives of wheat, either whole wheat or wheat flour or wheat gluten. And we see it in products every day, these constituents are in our foods every day and they come from foreign countries. For instance, every one of these breads we have here contain wheat gluten which may or may not be a problem. But 80 percent of the world’s wheat gluten is made in China. It’s not being made in the United States. So it’s a compound that’s going in our food that FDA’s not able currently to inspect.

What's in our food?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Let me take you back a couple of steps.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Let's take this loaf of bread for example...You send your kid down to the store, we're out of bread, we need a loaf of bread and he brings home 100 percent whole wheat bread. Not so?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well, the wheat is probably coming from the United States, but there is wheat gluten in this.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Which doesn't come from the United States?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Almost certainly will come from China or another Asian country.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What are the major countries besides China that supply ingredients that go into a lot of these foods that we're looking at?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well we get a lot of our whole foods like fruits and vegetables from Latin America, but for the ingredients that you're asking about, it tends to be a heavily concentrated in Asian countries. India, Pakistan, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and other countries that have less developed regulatory systems. Which is why you need a strong regulatory system in the United States. When the system over there is weak, you need strong here but unfortunately we have weak here and weak here.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Well how did this happen? I mean how did it happen that a loaf of bread from the grocery store up the street contains all these things from other countries when we used to just make a loaf of bread here at home?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: When our grandparents were making food or buying food, it tended to be all locally made with a few preservatives such as vinegar for pickling or sugar for canning or salt for curing. But food scientists found some miraculous ways to prevent bacterial growth, mold growth, the deterioration, souring of foods and other problems with food that, that made food much better, be more shelf stable, last longer, these are good developments. The problem is, in the last few years, the ingredient manufacturing has moved to other countries.


WILLIAM HUBBARD: It's cheaper. Their labor's cheaper, materials are cheaper. So all of these sources, the flavorings, the flavor enhancers, preservatives and leavening agents and other things are continuing to come from less developed countries overseas.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And is that because the government has lifted quotas on that type of product to come into this country?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well it is a product of globalization. True there is globalization all across the board, just as Wal-Mart is buying toasters from China, food manufacturers are buying ingredients from China. The problem is that the toaster breaks, you just take it back and get another one. If you get a poisonous food, that's a different matter.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Okay. Let's pick up something else. What about the Italian bread, while we're talking about bread.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: All of these breads are going to contain various domestic ingredients such as the flour, but they tend to also include imported products such as wheat gluten, calcium propionate which keeps mold from growing on bread. That's why the bread stays fresh for a few days. Because if you bake fresh bread, it's going to start molding very quickly. It contains soy lethicin, which is a stabilizer, a multiplier and a flavor enhancer in food. Most pure soy products such as tofu are made in the United States, but the soy ingredients tend to come from Asia.


WILLIAM HUBBARD: Then we have a soup. Soup, these source of soups tend to be...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Campbell's? What can be more American than Campbell's Soup?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: You put a thickening agent in it, Betty Ann, and so what do you put in? You put in wheat gluten. And then one of the things that wheat gluten does, Betty Ann, is makes breads chewier. So if you want a chewier bread you can add wheat gluten and you get your chewier cookie or your chewier bread. And that is from wheat gluten.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Let me stop you for a minute.


BETTY ANN BOWSER: The FDA has now said that wheat gluten was not the bad guy, was not the problem in all of the foods that killed animals. They've now said it was mislabeled and what was really the problem was wheat flour, mistakenly labeled as wheat gluten. But both... contained melamine. And melamine is what killed the animals. Do people need to be worried about this, if all of these things that you're showing me are in all these products?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I don't think people need to worry today that the food they're eating is unsafe. But they need to be worried that the regulatory system that protects them from someone who may send bad food is almost nonexistent. The FDA has had 10 straight years of budget cuts. They are incapable of protecting us. Plus Congress and the administration have cut their budget steadily.

An infusion of resources for FDA

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What does the government need to do to make sure that what happened to many, many people's dogs and cats doesn't happen to themselves and their children?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: The first thing I believe they need to do, the administration and Congress needs to immediately give FDA a big infusion of new resources to get inspectors in these ports, opening these foods, sampling them, and penalizing them. Making sure that these other countries know that if they send us unsafe food, we're going to turn it back.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: I mean how many people are you talking about? Thousands of people? What would this cost?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well it's hard to know. If you had a least a decent sampling plan, so that you could look at a reasonable amount of the food, then at least the message would go back to the exporting countries that someone's looking. Right now FDA can only expect about 1 percent of these foods which is virtually nothing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Isn't that just ripe for some terrorist, some bad guy with some bright idea to get their hands on some of these products coming into our country?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well if you recall Tommy Thompson, on his last day as the health and human services secretary said he worried. He lost sleep worrying that our system is so unsafe in terms of its ability to protect us against terrorism for food.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you think?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I think there's always a substantial potential here. I believe the food is safe, but what you need to put in place is a system to make sure it stays that way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much money would we be talking about in terms of appropriations, in terms of human beings that would need to be assigned, how would this work?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well there's a group called the Coalition for a Stronger FDA which is many industry groups, consumer groups and patient groups which is saying that an immediate infusion of $450 million would go a huge way toward fixing the food safety system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What would you see with that amount of money?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: You would get more inspectors at the border, more lab personnel, you would get more...more scientists on the job, looking at our food and protecting us.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Right now you say less than one percent of all food gets any going over.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: That's right, only one percent.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that's it.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: And in fact last year FDA was only able to sample 19,000 times. There were 199,000 shipments just from China alone.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And again, this is not sampling food products as they come to the table. It's sampling the ingredients that have come from other countries that go in the food products that go to our tables.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Right. It's opening these containers of wheat gluten and soy lethicin and all the other ingredients to make sure they're okay before they ever get to our manufacturers who will make the finished food that we will eat everyday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What else have we got here on the table that you think are examples of things that we haven't looked at.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: One of the things wheat gluten does is it helps make pizza dough rise and be chewy so we see that in that sort of product. Here is a kids' candy pop that is a little flavored roll that kids like to eat and it's got sodium citrate, malic acid, xanthan gum, ascorbic acid. Betty Ann, 80 percent of the world's ascorbic acid comes from China. There's almost no ascorbic acid made anymore in the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: [Ascorbic acid is] Vitamin C?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: That's right. But it's not locally made.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You mean vitamin, most of the vitamin C that we take in pills or we eat in food does not come from the United States?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: It is highly likely that those compounds will be coming from overseas, yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And no one's inspecting them.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well, the FDA's trying but they don't have the resources.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Okay, what else.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well, let's look at, this is apple juice. Now, you think apple juice is as American as apple pie. But in fact, much of our apple juice comes from China. And what FDA has been finding is they would water down the apple juice, add a chemical called inulin[MSOffice1] ...


WILLIAM HUBBARD: Yeah, and inulin would make it taste just like real apple juice and even FDA's own labs were having trouble finding a chemical in there. It was really an economic fraud to water down real apple juice and only use a small amount of real apple juice. And that was a very common problem and goes on today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wait a minute. Let's see what this label says.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: You won't see anything on it. It just says apple juice.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It says 100 percent juice from concentrate.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well they lie.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the label says 100 percent...

WILLIAM HUBBARD: It should be. What I'm saying is the, with the coming in bulk from China, it will often, they're telling Harris Teeter, this is 100 percent apple juice and FDA is trying to make sure that it is before it ever gets in that bottle. But they have developed such nefarious techniques for disguising their watering down of the real apple juice that even the FDA laboratories are having difficulty finding this compound inulin, which mimics the chemical composition of apple juice.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So how do I know when I'm getting a jar of real apple juice at the store?


Concerns about imported food

BETTY ANN BOWSER: OK, what else?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Here we see a number of seasonings and flavorings and you'll see things like wheat gluten is in here, our old friend. Corn gluten is in here. Various natural flavors. The source of compounds tend to come from foreign countries as well. Any of these flavorings, if you see a savory product like rice or pasta, they tend to have a great deal of these sort of savory chemicals like xanthan gum and guar gum, that tend to come from overseas because they enhance the flavor of the product and they're very cheap when you buy them in Asia.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But maybe not necessarily China.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Maybe not. There are other countries too. For instance we have a product here, this is cottage cheese. It has a common ingredient carrageenan which you see in lots of dairy products. Carrageenan tends to come more often from the Philippines, but again, a country that has a less developed regulatory system than that here in the United States.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So good old cottage cheese may not come from the cow, from the farm to the supermarket?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Cheese is probably a domestic American product but it will have ingredients in it that could well come from other countries. And here's a salad dressing. Notice how they try to make sure that the oils and the other ingredients stay mixed together, so they use various compounds like xanthium gum, and others too, they're called emulsifiers, to try to keep the product together. These kinds of products come from overseas in many, many cases. For instance you'll also see guar gum. Guar gum comes from the locust tree and is grown principally in Pakistan and India so that's where most of our guar gum comes from and it's a very common product in our food.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And does anybody inspect that when it comes into the country?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: FDA can inspect so little that it can only generally look at something they know is a problem.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do they know it's a problem if they inspect so little of it?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: That's a good question. They try to use their best risk management techniques. But unfortunately when you're inspecting so little, you're not able to do a particularly thorough job.


WILLIAM HUBBARD: This is an interesting example, Betty Ann. This is applesauce, baby applesauce. And it has ascorbic acid as a vitamin C to help prevent spoilage. It's known as an antioxidant. So you might think, well, if I don't want to buy this. If I'm worried about ascorbic acid being there because most ascorbic acid comes from China, I would buy organic applesauce which is this.


WILLIAM HUBBARD: But if you notice on the label it says it's made from organic apples, but it still contains ascorbic acid. So you're still getting a foreign imported chemical even though this is technically an organic product.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That doesn't seem right. I mean that's almost like lying about what's in the product. How can it be organic if it's got chemicals in it?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Certainly the apples would likely have been organic, but ascorbic acid is an important ingredient to prevent spoilage in these commodities. It's a good thing. It's not unsafe. It's just if it's coming from a place where no one is checking it out, then there could be some potential concern.


WILLIAM HUBBARD: Lots of candies and soft drinks have a compound called gum arabic. It's actually gum acacia now because after 9/11 manufacturers changed its name to get the name arabic out because they learned that Osama bin Laden had owned a portion of a gum arabic manufacturing plant in Sudan. Most gum Arabic, which is very common in our food, comes from the Sudan and Somalia. There's no reason to believe that anyone is trying to do nefarious things with that product. But you worry about its source.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So let's get into all this, this is all seafood, fish, right? Shrimp, seafood, some kind of dip. Tell us about these.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Betty Ann, FDA's had tremendous concerns about imported Asian seafood from countries like China and Vietnam. They will often raise the fish in heavily polluted water and the fish are subject to fungal infections and bacterial infections. So the farmers will add illegal antibodies called fluoroquinolones or an anti-fungal agent called malachite green. And then that fish will arrive here in the United States with these illegal chemicals in them. And FDA has found tremendous problems with those. These are illegal drugs that are a big problem for human health and should never be in our seafood. But FDA has many times found problems with those. The same is true with shrimp.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wait a minute, let me stop you. Are these chemicals that have been given to these shrimp and fish, are they on this label anywhere?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Oh absolutely not. These are illegal chemicals and drugs that are not allowed for use in the United States, but are used in these foreign countries to keep the fish from dying before they can send them to us. And then unfortunately they can be in the tissue of the fish when we eat them and FDA has found that problem repeatedly over many years. But it cannot go back to the foreign country and say you must stop sending us this tainted food.


WILLIAM HUBBARD: FDA has to keep looking and keep finding it. FDA has no authority to say to a foreign country, you continue to send us unsafe food, we're not taking anymore. Don't send it anymore until you'll fix the problem that you're in. FDA cannot do that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Should they have the power to do that?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well many people think they should. The Department of Agriculture can do that for meat, but FDA cannot for the food it regulates.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So beware of any frozen fish that you're looking at, that comes here from another country?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well again, I don't think there's any particular safety issue that anyone should stop eating any given food. But I think Americans would say to us, we pay taxes to protect our food supply. That's something that we believe taxes should go for. And therefore, I think they would view an investment in protecting the food supply as a darn good investment.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Well, would you eat this shrimp or this fish that comes from Asia?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well I must say, shrimp has been a particular problem. Imagine the shrimp coming up from a hot Indian Ocean deck, put on a boat hours before it gets into port. And then it, it decomposes and it smells so bad you dump sodium saccharin all over to hide the odor and then ship it to the Americans. That's not something people want.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Well I'm asking you. Would you eat shrimp like this?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I would eat any of these foods. I don't think . . .

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You'd eat the seafood?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I don't think that we need to think our food supply's unsafe. I think we need to put in place protections to make sure it stays safe.

Associated costs

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You're talking about, I mean just listening to you, a massive, massive campaign costing probably billions of dollars to put something like this in place to protect the globalization of food as it comes to this country.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well the Coalition for a Stronger FDA believes that an immediate infusion of $450 million which in a multi-trillion dollar budget is not a lot of money, would largely address these concerns.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But what would that money do?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: It would have more inspectors looking at these products, opening these containers and checking them out. And it would also have more scientists at FDA to develop test methods and other ways of detecting these contaminants like the melamine.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Looking back on this recent tragedy where a number of people lost their dogs and their cats, are we lucky that we didn't have sick and dead children as well as adults?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Betty Ann, I think this melamine example should be viewed as a wakeup call. This was an example of there but for the grace of God went some people, and Congress and the administration need to get that and do something about it. And they need to do it now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why does there seem to be at least superficially apathy about this subject?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well there's not. Congress will be having hearings on this next week and the week after. A lot of members are beginning to realize they need to do something about this. But let's just hope that slow moving machinery in Congress and of course in the White House will get together and work on this problem together which is what I think people in this country would want to happen.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You do think something is going to happen?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I sure hope so because if it doesn't, we're going to continue to have a system that is failing because the FDA is failing, and the reason the FDA is failing is because we have failed to give the FDA the resources it needs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You used to work there, so let me ask you this question. For weeks the FDA has been telling Americans with respect to their dogs and cats, that the problem was wheat gluten that contained melamine, and that the melamine mixed and got into the animals and caused crystals which killed the animals by kidney failure. Yesterday, they got up and they said it was wheat gluten that was mislabeled. It was really wheat flour. What are we supposed to make out of this?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I think this shows how these commodities and this includes drugs as well, move around the world in constant arbitrage with no decent tracking system by entrepreneurs who have no reason to care about the safety of the food. We've seen recent drug contaminations like this and there needs to be a system in this country to at least protect Americans. We can't protect the whole world, but at least we can take care of our own people.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So what do you do if you're a woman living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and you have a husband and two children and a dog and two cats and you're concerned that everybody doesn't get sick?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I think you continue to live your lifestyle the way you do but you send the message to the representatives, I want a strong FDA. You need to fix this up there in Washington.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You don't think you also ought to read labels more carefully?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Reading the labels are not going to help. You would be hard-pressed, Betty Ann, to even find the processed food in this country that does not contain imported ingredients.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Of all of the ingredients that we've talked about that are in all of these products, what are the ones that you think Americans really should be skeptical about in terms of coming in and going into everyday things that people eat?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well clearly FDA has found the biggest immediate health problem from the seafood, from illegal drugs and other compounds in seafood imported into the United States. But there are lots of chemicals here like ascorbic acid and others, that are being made in other countries and that no one is checking. So I think there is concern on both levels. The bacterial infection from things like seafood, as well as all of these chemicals that are going into our food, without a screening process in place.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And so how would a screening process work like for seafood?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well first of all, if FDA had the ability to say to other countries, we're tired of you sending us this food. We're going to not let it in until you clean up your act over there. That might be a big help, but of course you also need those inspectors at the border, finding the problem, turning it back. When they start having a lot of their foods sent back because it's no good, they'll stop sending it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And then let me turn the whole question for example of wheat gluten around the other way. They used to have quotas. The Chinese couldn't flood the market at one point. There was quotas and then we talked to this guy that makes wheat gluten yesterday in Kansas, in Atchison, Kansas, and he's only producing about 2% of what he's capable of making today. And he says that's the problem.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Globalization is clearly a part of the problem here in terms of the access to our market. It has allowed producers in other countries to produce much less expensive products, grab market share and sell these products to us. The missing piece then is the FDA piece which is to screen those products before they ever get to our food processors.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Should the FDA operate more like the USDA?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Many people believe the FDA should have the authority the USDA has which is if they find a problem in another country, they can say to that country, you're not sending us anymore food until you've shown us that you can send it to us safely.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Of course the USDA doesn't have to inspect as many different kinds of things as the FDA would with all these chemicals you're talking about, will they?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: That's correct. USDA was given the authority over meat many years ago when meat was the problem. They have done a good job of protecting the meat supply so imported meat is very safe. The problem has been the FDA has not been given the concomitant resources that USDA has to protect the rest of the food supply. FDA has to regulate 80 percent of the food supply with only 20 percent of the food safety resources that Congress provides.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Chinese yesterday said, okay, you know we're really going to get our act together, we're going to start inspecting things. They've arrested two people. How much faith should we place in that?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: It's very clear from the example of the foods that come to us from Asia including China...that the Chinese health officials are currently incapable of assuring that products leaving China are safe for our market.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Well if the Congress doesn't do something, and the Chinese are not going to, can't be trusted, where does this leave the ordinary average consumer?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well I think again, Americans do not need to worry that they're going to open a can of food today and be injured. They need to get the message to Washington that Washington needs to fix this by fixing the FDA.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yeah but one of these days lacking regulation, somebody is going to open a can of something that's going to make them or somebody in their families sick.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I think we all worry that the potential here for serious harm of Americans is great and that needs to be addressed rapidly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How did we get to this situation?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: When our grandparents were making and buying food, you didn't have these ingredients. Modern food science has developed it and they're good things. The problem is that the source of these foods has moved from the United States to less developed countries, where the incentive is to cut corners and to perhaps send us food that's not safe.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: I hate to ask this question, but I have to because it's part of my job. If bad guys wanted to poison, people always worry about the food, about the food system in America being subject to terrorists. I mean if terrorists really wanted to, how easy would it be for bad guys to make hundreds of thousands of people sick?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Well on his last day in office, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, said he worried about the food supply from imported food because he thought it was too darned easy to do just that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you think as a former FDA employee?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I'd rather not say.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you have concerns about it?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: Secretary Thompson was echoing concerns among many knowledgeable food safety officials.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Okay, so you wouldn't disagree with him?

WILLIAM HUBBARD: I wouldn't disagree with Secretary Thompson.