Two weeks after a massive recall of several brands of pet foods and after dozens of dogs and cats have died of unexplained intestinal ills, scientists at FDA's Forensic Chemistry Center in Cincinnati make an unusual discovery: There are high levels of melamine in the food.
An industrial chemical used to make plastics and sterilize swimming pools, the melamine seems to have come from the added wheat gluten. But how did it ever get in that ingredient?
In another two weeks, the whole country would learn how China had become one of the world's leading suppliers of ingredients, and not just for pet foods. That's right, the same country known for cheap angora wool sweaters, lead-based paint on toys and knock-offs of copyrighted and trademarked goods was supplying us with basic ingredients for our foods. And consumers didn't even know it.
Consumer reactions were numerous and varied. How could this happen in America, where consumers enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world? This time it involved pets, but could the same thing happen to human food? And when did we start importing food ingredients from China?
Perhaps that last question was the most perplexing. American parents, who also had begun returning toys and children’s jewelry tainted with lead paint, were learning what a huge trading partner China had become. Now did they have to worry if there are dangerous Chinese ingredients in their frozen pizza?
A $2 trillion issue
The same economic factors making China the source of millions of Mattel toys – and Vietnam the world’s leading exporter of pepper – are making developing nations the source of many of our (and the world’s) food ingredients.
Some 80 percent of the world’s ascorbic acid – vitamin C, used as a preservative -- is now made in China. So is 40 percent of the world’s xanthan gum. China is the leading provider of seafood to the U.S.
The burgeoning global economy results in the importation of foods and ingredients by 825,000 importers from 150 countries, some from developing countries without strong food-safety inspection systems.
There are economic factors pushing growth in food imports, explains David Acheson, who just got a new FDA title in January: associate commissioner for foods. "(For consumers), the expectation is, ‘I don't want to pay $5 for a head of lettuce.’ How are you going to deal with that? You import the food.”
Imports of food and ingredients alone amount to 25,000 shipments every day, according to the commissioner. “Food imports grew at an average annual rate of 14 percent per year, and during the past five years, FDA-regulated food imports from China increased by more than 140 percent,” he says.
Food labels must indicate the list of ingredients and where the end-product is made, but there’s no requirement to list the country of origin of the ingredients. A product made in the U.S. might contain ingredients from China, Mexico, India or South Africa. Anywhere along the way, some unscrupulous supplier or the ingredient importer might substitute a food-grade product with a cheaper or industrial-grade version. Or worse.
Imports of all sorts in 2007 totaled more than $2 trillion, or twice of the economy of Brazil, according to Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services (parent of the FDA). “And we're likely to see it grow even further because as the world continues to flatten and as the global economy continues to expand, we expect we'll see as much as three times the amount of import activity in this country by 2015 as we do now,” he told National Public Radio.
Arriving through 300 ports of entry, shipments of food into the U.S. have quadrupled since 1996, when our agricultural trade balance was more than $27 billion. Today, U.S. agricultural and food exports outweighed imports by a scant $8 billion. Individual shipments of food and ingredients from China alone have grown from 82,000 in 2002 to 199,000 in 2006 and are expected to soon hit 300,000.
Simply too complex
The $64,000 question becomes: How can the U.S. government and the food industry make certain imported foods and ingredients are safe for consumers and how do they protect their brands?
First, let’s take the government.
A complex regulatory environment exists in the U.S. More than a dozen federal agencies oversee various aspects of food safety. Primarily, FDA shares responsibility with USDA, Dept. of Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health and agricultural agencies. And you wonder why the government outsources organic certification.
Today, regulatory authorities not only have to look at the quality of imports but they must be watchful for harmful chemicals and contaminants introduced by terrorists.
Oversight for $417 billion worth of domestic food and some $60 billion of imported food each year is the purview of the FDA. That includes about 80 percent of the food supply -- just about everything we eat except for meat, poultry, dairy and some egg products, which are regulated by USDA.
Unlike the USDA, the FDA has no authority to require a foreign country to send us safe food. Its job is to find unsafe food at the port of entry. Given the high number of imports, FDA can only physically inspect a small percentage of products, so a risk-based approach is the most sensible way to identify products for inspection.
FDA claims to “screen” 100 percent of the foods that legally enter the U.S. and are subject to its authority, according to an FDA spokesman. Inspectors then target and identify the products and countries of origin for which it has the greatest concern. Those products, representing 1 to 2 percent of the food imports regulated by FDA, are physically inspected, and FDA samples a subset of these for lab analysis.