The United States' food and vitamin supply may not be as safe as we think, according to recent reports. This year's pet food scare spurred intensive investigations into national regulations regarding human food and vitamin safety, and the findings were not good.
Many of the products creating the most serious problems are distributed nationally -- from Texas, to New York, to Missouri, and in national supermarket, discount store, and drug store food chains. States such as Texas may be at particular risk, as many products are legally or illegally imported at the border. It is almost guaranteed that any major store in any town or city in the state, from Dallas, to Houston, to Austin, are likely to be carrying products imported from a country that has a track record of contaminated food and vitamins. The implications this has for the healthcare and health insurance industries, not to mention for public health in general, are astronomical. If a series of outbreaks do occur, it could prove especially detrimental to Texas, where 25% of its residents are uninsured, and the healthcare system is already overburdened.
According to Peter Kovacs, a food industry executive and consultant of forty years, "the U.S. is sitting on a powder keg, ready for food contamination issues to explode. Many of the major national food producers are very careful about their products," he says. They've learned to trace their ingredients directly to their sources, and to test them regularly. This isn't required, however, and many manufacturers don't, particularly if the products are considered at lower risk -- like pet foods.
This is precisely what happened when pet food was contaminated with a wheat protein from China. China, which is already building a reputation for exporting contaminated food and vitamins, exported wheat protein from companies that added melamine and cyanuric acid to up the apparent protein content and price. This supposed higher protein content is one of the major reasons the more expensive brands, like Iams, were hit so hard. Believing they were buying a more potent product, they, instead, ended up contaminating millions of pounds of food due to one ingredient.
Recalls are common -- they just don't always make national news. In recent months, there have been recalls on milk, olives, bottled water, bread, prepared fruit trays, melons, oysters, and peanut butter, for reasons varying from dangerous levels of salmonella, listeria, and arsenic, to wire fragments in the food. Last year's national e-coli spinach scare stemmed from Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista, CA, and lead is routinely found in vitamins and dietary supplements. An estimated 76 million fall prey to illness and 5,000 die every year in the U.S. due to food contamination.
Just this February, ConAgra foods recalled the widely-distributed Pan peanut butter due to salmonella content, which, in turn, was due to poor conditions at one of their plants. Europe just dodged a bullet when it discovered right before the product hit the market, that Chinese-manufactured vitamin A used to supplement infant formulas was contaminated.
A major part of the problem in the U.S. is the Food and Drug Administration's gross underfunding and lack of control. Imports have doubled since 2002 to nine million shipments a year, and the FDA only has the resources to inspect one percent of them. Many of those imports originate from countries without strict controls on their products, and regular testing before they hit the American market does not occur.
Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, stated "we're not even close to having a system in place that gives assurance that the food is safe." He should know. Two years ago, the FDA suspected Cold Stone Creamery was responsible for a salmonella outbreak in four states, but their painfully out-of-date labs couldn't detect the bacteria. Samples were shipped to Doyle, whose lab did pick it up. The FDA simply doesn't have the resources" he said.
Dr. David A Kessler, former FDA Commissioner, would agree. "Our food-safety system in this country is broken," he said.
In fact, many former employees of the FDA agree. William Hubbard, a top policy official who left the FDA in 2005, warned ten years ago that the amount of imported food was on the rise, while the ability of the FDA to regulate those shipments was on the decline. Attempts to solve the situation were offered to Congress and promptly rejected. Five years ago, they tried again with a $100 million import-safety plan, inexpensive by today's standards. The FDA also asked for the authority to block food shipped from countries "repeatedly linked to contaminated products." Both proposals were soundly rejected.
The fact that food manufacturers spend a million dollars every year lobbying against stricter regulations, and that mega powers, like Wal-Mart, also oppose tougher regulations, port inspections, and country of origin labeling, doesn't help. These companies would lose business, and they make sure Congress knows it. Wal-Mart alone is China's eighth largest trading partner, and 10% of all of their imports go to the company. Chinese agricultural products shipped to the U.S. totaled a staggering $2.26 billion alone last year, and 90% of all vitamin C sold in the U.S. is manufactured there. To enforce tighter regulations would effectively ban many of the products offered today on the U.S. market.
On May 2nd of this year, after widespread outbreaks affecting one product after another -- from spinach, to pet foods, to toothpaste, to vitamins -- Congress finally acted by passing a bill allowing the FDA to create databases of contaminated food. It seems so terribly simple, but until now, the organization did not even have the power or resources to electronically track contaminated shipments in a detailed manner, and then efficiently circulate the information.
Hubbard says it can't stop there, however, and recommends modeling the FDA after the USDA. While the USDA only inspects meat -- and the FDA everything else -- the USDA has ten times as many inspectors, has the power and resources to send them to foreign plants, can deny entry of products from any company that doesn't meet safety standards, and limits meat shipment to just a few ports in order to streamline the process. The FDA can do none of that. The FDA, realistically at this point, only has the resources to respond to problems already going on.
The average American citizen at this point can take action by lobbying Congress to impose stricter regulations, and buying as much local food as possible. Locally produced food is no guarantee, of course, that contamination will not occur, but at least customers can see where their products are being produced, and ask questions of those actually growing it. As always, the best advice seems to be common sense and vigilance.
Being aware of food safety is an important part of watching out for your health. How you take care of yourself will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet, as well.