Pet Deaths Spur Call for Better FDA Screening

Suppliers in China have admitted to adding melamine to animal feed. The FDA is trying to screen out the additive, which is  now blamed for many pet deaths..
Suppliers in China have admitted to adding melamine to animal feed. The FDA is trying to screen out the additive, which is now blamed for many pet deaths.. (Associated Press)
By Rick Weiss and Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Amid growing revelations that suppliers in China frequently spike pet food and other food ingredients with contaminants to boost profits, momentum is building in Washington to bolster the Food and Drug Administration's capacity to detect and screen out adulterated imports.

Several Chinese suppliers conceded over the weekend that adding melamine to pet food ingredients -- now blamed for the deaths of many animals in the United States and possible contamination of the human food supply -- is but the latest technique for fooling U.S. companies into thinking they are purchasing a high-quality product.

Before melamine there was urea, Chinese traders said -- another nitrogen-rich chemical that was used to give false high scores on tests of protein content but was abandoned after it made animals ill.

The task of guarding against contaminants in imports has become far more complicated because an increasing portion of the tens of billions of dollars in Chinese food and agricultural imports involves powders and concentrates for the processed-food industry -- including the wheat gluten and rice protein at the center of the pet food scandal. Animal feed imports alone grew sevenfold from 2001 to 2006, the Commerce Department says.

Such products pose three problems: Their makeup is not obvious by mere visual inspection; they can be easily and invisibly contaminated or intentionally spiked with chemicals that are not on the FDA's standard battery of tests; and their origins are often vague, because they have been through several stages of processing and trade.

Now an increasing number of legislators, scientists and others are saying it is time to modernize FDA's authority to trace the sources of food imports and punish scofflaws -- legal powers that experts say have barely evolved over the past 70 years.

Many also want to expand the agency's food-safety budget.

"I do think this pet food thing has shown people, including people at the very highest levels of the administration, that something needs to be fixed," said William Hubbard, associate director of the FDA from 1991 to 2005. "If this isn't a wake-up call, then people are so asleep they are catatonic."

Which new powers to give the FDA, however -- and how to spend any extra funding -- remains contentious. And some legislators want assurances that the agency is worthy of added support.

"Leadership has been missing for far too long, and that needs to change quickly," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the subcommittee that funds the agency. Others have complained that Senate-confirmed FDA commissioners have been in place for less than one-third of President Bush's tenure.

Relying largely on laws passed in 1906 and 1938, which among other things empower it to detain "filthy, putrid or decomposed" foods, the FDA today oversees $1 trillion worth of products annually, including about half of all imports. The $2 billion agency regulates products that together account for fully 25 cents of every dollar American consumers spend, and sheer volume makes it impossible to inspect more than a small fraction of incoming food.

"It's a huge amount," said Dan Michels, a former director of the FDA's Office of Enforcement and now a Silver Spring-based regulatory consultant. "You can't even look at everything, let alone sample and test it."

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