It's Not Just Pet Food
Lost amid the anxiety surrounding the tainted U.S. pet food supply is this sobering reality: It's not just pet owners who should be worried. The uncontrolled distribution of low-quality imported food ingredients, mainly from China, poses a grave threat to public health worldwide.
Essential ingredients, such as vitamins used in many packaged foods, arrive at U.S. ports from China and, as recent news reports have underscored, are shipped without inspection to food and beverage distributors and manufacturers. Although they are used in relatively small quantities, these ingredients carry enormous risks for American consumers. One pound of tainted wheat gluten could, if undetected, contaminate as much as a thousand pounds of food.
Unlike imported beef, which is inspected at the point of processing by the U.S. Agriculture Department, few practical safeguards have been established to ensure the quality of food ingredients from China.
Often, U.S. officials don't know where or how such ingredients were produced. We know, however, that alarms have been raised about hygiene and labor standards at many Chinese manufacturing facilities. In China, municipal water used in the manufacturing process is often contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals. Food ingredient production is particularly susceptible to environmental contamination.
Equally worrisome, U.S. officials often lack the capability to trace foreign-produced food ingredients to their source of manufacture. In theory, the Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001 provides some measure of traceability. In practice, the act is ineffective and was not designed for this challenge. Its enforcement is also shrouded in secrecy by the Department of Homeland Security.
Even if Food and Drug Administration regulators wanted to crack down on products emanating from the riskiest foreign facilities, they couldn't, because they have no way of knowing which ingredients come from which plant. This is why officials have spent weeks searching for the original Chinese source of the contaminated wheat gluten that triggered the pet food crisis.
That it was pet food that got tainted -- and that relatively few pets were harmed -- is pure happenstance. Earlier this spring, Europe narrowly averted disaster when a batch of vitamin A from China was found to be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, which has been proved to cause infant deaths. Thankfully, the defective vitamin A had not yet been incorporated into infant formula. Next time we may not be so fortunate.
Currently, most of the world's vitamins are manufactured in China. Unable to compete, the last U.S. plant making vitamin C closed a year ago. One of Europe's largest citric acid plants shut last winter, and only one vitamin C manufacturer operates in the West. Given China's cheap labor, artificially low prices and the unfair competitive climate it has foisted on the industry, few Western producers of food ingredients can survive much longer.
Western companies have had to invest heavily in Chinese facilities. These Western-owned plants follow strict standards and are generally better managed than their locally owned counterparts. Nevertheless, 80 percent of the world's vitamin C is now manufactured in China -- much of it unregulated and some of it of questionable quality.
Europe is ahead of the United States in seeking greater accountability and traceability in food safety and importation. But even the European Union's "rapid alert system" is imperfect. Additional action is required if the continent is to avoid catastrophes.
To protect consumers here, we must revise our regulatory approaches. The first option is to institute regulations, based on the European model, to ensure that all food ingredients are thoroughly traceable. We should impose strict liability on manufacturers that fail to enforce traceability standards.
A draconian alternative is to mount a program modeled on USDA beef inspection for all food ingredients coming into the country. This regimen would require a significant commitment of resources and intensive training for hundreds of inspectors.
Food safety is a bipartisan issue: Congress and the administration must work together and move aggressively to devise stricter standards. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has deplored dangerous levels of lead in vitamin products originating in China. We must get to the bottom of this pressing public health issue, without self-defeating finger-pointing.
The United States is sitting on powder keg with uncontrolled importation and the distribution of low-quality food ingredients. Before it explodes -- putting more animals and people at risk -- corrective steps must be taken.
The writer was president of NutraSweet Kelco Co. from 1994 to 1997. He is a management consultant to many large food ingredient companies.