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Pet Food Scare Raises Questions About Food Safety

June 1, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: Never have Mexican farm workers had to be more concerned about food safety than they are today. Horror stories of dead pets and sick Americans have meant revved-up safety programs, with workers constantly washing and disinfecting their hands and tools.

ANDREW POIRIEZ, Circle Produce Co.: This is us staying in business here. I mean, we do what we have to do, because we have to produce for that market. And if we don’t do it, it’ll cause problems.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Andre Poiriez is a second-generation owner of an American company that grows fruits and vegetables about an hour south of the U.S.-Mexican border. He says, without rigid safety procedures, he could lose business.

ANDREW POIRIEZ: There’s a better possibility of the product being contaminated and then coming across and making somebody sick, and then the whole thing happens after that, up to even the company going out of business.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mexican food represents only part of the skyrocketing food imports coming through ports like Seattle. Many of the imports come from Asia, developing countries like China, which supply very high amounts of frozen seafood, apple juice and garlic.

Nationwide, there are 25,000 shipments of imported food a day, 20 million a year, with the market is growing. The statistics tell the story: 92 percent of all fresh and frozen seafood consumed is imported; 52 percent of the grapes; 75 percent of the apple juice; 72 percent of the mushrooms. The list goes on, and almost none of it gets inspected.

Listen to Bill Hubbard, who was associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, for 14 years.

WILLIAM HUBBARD, Former Associate Commissioner, FDA: Virtually everything we’re eating is coming from foreign countries. As it comes off the ship, the FDA inspector is allowed to go look, but there’s so many of these containers they can only look at only 1 percent.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hubbard says the problem isn’t just whole food products, like fish and vegetables, but a growing list of imported ingredients that go into processed food.

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, almost certainly will come from China or another Asian country. They’re also retardants for bacteria and mold, like propionic acid that’s in here. It’s likely coming from overseas, as well, countries that have less-developed regulatory systems, which is why you need a strong regulatory system in the United States.

FDA's budget

BETTY ANN BOWSER: U.S. Customs and Border Protection examine a small amount of incoming cargo, but questions are now being raised about another agency, the FDA, responsible for regulating 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Ten straight years of budget cuts have meant there are only about 300 food inspectors to monitor 418 ports of entry. Meanwhile, the number of food shipments has increased 2,000 percent in 14 years. That's because American food retailers and processors are turning to markets in developing countries, where production costs are low and there is almost no government regulation.

Hubbard says that makes seafood from China, Vietnam and the rest of Asia a particular problem.

WILLIAM HUBBARD: 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 antibiotics, and then that fish will arrive here in the United States with these illegal chemicals in them.

Shrimp has been a particular problem. Imagine the shrimp coming up on a hot Indian Ocean deck, put out on a boat hours before it gets into port. And then it decomposes, and it smells so bad, you dump sodium saccharin all over it to hide the odor, and then ship it to the Americans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, in February said, "Food safety is a high-risk area with inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources."

In the same report, the GAO said 76 million Americans contract food poisoning each year, resulting in about 5,000 deaths. The FDA's new food czar would like to have more resources to control the problem.

DAVID ACHESON, Food and Drug Administration: I feel right now that we're playing catch-up. And I want to get to the point where we've caught up, and we're moving ahead, and we're being proactive. And we're finding stuff that we haven't yet thought about. It's not going to be cheap. The will is there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And the money?

DAVID ACHESON: Money, will be, I hope, forthcoming.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Millions?

DAVID ACHESON: Who knows?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Billions?

DAVID ACHESON: Who knows?

Food processors' responsibility

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Acheson says, until Congress gives FDA more money and more regulatory authority, most of the responsibility for food safety will continue to fall on the shoulders of food processors. In the past, that has led to disaster.

In March, thousands of pet deaths were blamed on imported wheat gluten and rice protein, both contaminated with melamine. They were imported from China, by hundreds of American companies that manufacture dog and cat food.

Then, weeks after its initial finding, the FDA said testing showed wheat flour containing melamine was the problem. Steve Pickman is vice president of the country's largest wheat gluten producer.

STEVE PICKMAN, MGP Ingredients, Inc.: It's almost unbelievable to think that we were fooled once by finding out that these producers in China had intentionally adulterated their ingredient with melamine, a known toxic which is not allowed in those types of applications in the U.S. That was the first stunning development. And then, now to find out that it wasn't even wheat gluten but actually wheat flour disguised as wheat gluten is just -- it's unfathomable.

Pressure on foreign food suppliers

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When there is a food scare, the country's largest grocery trade organization goes to work in its lab in Washington, D.C., to test for purity. And Pat Verduin, its chief scientist, says members are putting pressure on foreign suppliers to improve.

PAT VERDUIN, Grocery Manufacturers Association: They have all gone back, looked at their supply base, looked at who they're buying from, looked at the source of those supplies, of those ingredients, made sure their testing programs were robust enough that they were confident that they were not getting adulterated ingredients.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Acheson would like to see companies become even more aggressive about checking out their foreign suppliers.

DAVID ACHESON: I don't think they know as much about them as I would like them to know about them. And I think that that's something that needs to change. It needs to change in the context of both food safety, as well as food defense.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Economists say it would help if developing countries made food safety more of a priority, because, in the end, the food trade depends on consumer confidence. Agricultural economist Neil Harl.

NEIL HARL, Iowa State University: We can cajole them, we can urge them, and we should be. We should be using our diplomatic efforts to try to increase the standard. But it would be the market, I think, that ultimately will cause them to make the change.

Tampering at the retail level

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only does the FDA have to be vigilant about foreign food imports; since 9/11, Congress has made it a first line of defense again bioterrorism. But Dr. Acheson says it's not in the public interest to be specific about what the agency is doing.

DAVID ACHESON: Is the system still vulnerable to somebody doing something? I'd have to say, yes, of course it is. We couldn't make it 100 percent tight, and an example of that is, for example, at retail. You have to have a retail environment where people can come and go freely to buy the products that they want. If somebody decided to do something at retail that was bad -- and we do see that from time to time, with tampering, little low-level problems -- it's going to be very difficult to prevent.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sentiment is growing on Capitol Hill to create one super-agency, with twice the money and twice the personnel, to police the U.S. food supply, but so far passage of definitive legislation is not imminent.

JIM LEHRER: On the domestic supply front, this week, an Ohio company recalled its animal feed products because they contained melamine. The FDA said the levels were too low to pose a health hazard to humans, but it's investigating why the company was adding that banned substance in the first place.