FIRST THERE was the melamine scare, in which Chinese wheat gluten laced with dangerous amounts of that chemical made its way into pet food and killed or sickened thousands of animals. Then the Chinese government sentenced the head of the country's food and drug authority to death for taking bribes and allowing adulterated products onto the market. Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about Chinese toothpaste containing a poisonous antifreeze ingredient, and the regulator has clamped down on Chinese seafood imports. Public heath advocates are calling for sweeping -- and expensive -- reform of food import procedures.
Since the melamine affair focused public attention on the safety of food imports, many reports on the subject have been, well, nauseating. The Post's Rick Weiss, for example, examined FDA "refusal reports" on Chinese imports, finding that, over the course of a month earlier this year, inspectors turned away shipments of "filthy" juices, "poisonous" swordfish and scallops carrying putrefying bacteria. Anecdotal evidence such as this, along with the fact that the FDA thoroughly inspects less than 1 percent of the imports for which it is responsible, fuels fears of what is not being turned away -- and what ends up on supermarket shelves.
In response, the FDA is developing a plan to revamp its approach to food safety. FDA officials say that it will probably rely on information gathering in countries of origin, which will help prevent contamination abroad and assist inspectors in the United States in targeting the imports most likely to be adulterated. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that the FDA's food safety division should be modeled on that of the Agriculture Department, which requires countries to be certified in order to export meat and poultry to the United States. Others want to unify responsibility for food safety in one federal agency.
Lost in much of the debate is that the vast majority of imported foodstuffs is perfectly safe. For now, the developing FDA approach looks promising, assuming it can reliably gather the data required to conduct an effective prevention program overseas and a risk-based inspection regime at home. Such a regime will require some additional funding and the ability to conduct audits abroad, but it should be tried and evaluated before the government rushes to create a massive new bureaucracy.