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Extended Interview: Former FDA Official Discusses Food Safety

William Hubbard is a former associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. He spoke with NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser about his concerns about the FDA's ability to inspect foreign foods.

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  • 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.

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