Former Commissioner: FDA Needs Resources to Ensure Food Safety

Appearing earlier this month on the PBS NewsHour, William Hubbard told correspondent Betty Ann Bowser that while the food supply is not dangerous, food – notably the ingredients in it – that is imported from countries with a lower standard of food safety and quality than America’s can imperil the health of Americans.

“I believe the food is safe, but what you need to put in place is a system to make sure it stays that way,” Hubbard said.

Citing a proposal by the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, a collective of industry, consumer and patient groups, Hubbard said the FDA immediately needs $450 million, which “would go a huge way toward fixing the food safety system.”

“When you’re inspecting so little, you’re not able to do a particularly thorough job.”
The result would be more FDA inspectors looking at food products, opening containers, and checking the contents, Hubbard said. The funds would also allow the FDA to hire more scientists to develop test methods and other ways of detecting contaminants like melamine and other illicit ingredients that are in food that is manufactured in some offshore locations.

The absence of sufficient inspection makes the U.S. food supply vulnerable to unintentional or accidental contamination as well as intentional or malicious tampering, which is the same as terrorism, he indicated.

Last month, Dr. David Kessler, who served as FDA commissioner in 1990-97, succinctly told lawmakers that America’s system to ensure the safety of its food supply is broken. (See ID WebNews)

“Our food safety system is broken,” Kessler declared in his testimony before the House Oversight and Investigations Committee hearing on the future of the Food and Drug Administration.

“We have no structure for preventing foodborne illness in this country. The reality is that there is currently no mandate, no leadership, no resources, nor scientific research base for prevention of food safety problems. There is no one in the executive branch with the clout and authority to prevent foodborne illness,” Kessler said.

In the wake of the highly publicized spate of foodborne pathogen outbreaks last fall and the melamine-contaminated Chinese pet food that killed dogs and cats in North America, the country is in a frantic state about the integrity of products that consumers are consuming. Hubbard insisted in the broadcast that the food supply is not in imminent danger and urged consumers not to fear the food on their tables.

“I don’t think that we need to think our food supply’s unsafe. I think we need to put in place protections to make sure it stays safe,” he said.

However, Hubbard said, consumers should be worried that the regulatory agency that has been entrusted to protect Americans from manufacturers that may be exporting dangerous food to the U.S. is “almost nonexistent.” He said that due to 10 years of budget cuts the FDA is “incapable of protecting us.”

Hubbard believes that one of the FDA’s greatest shortcomings is the lack of inspectors that can examine and certify each container of food and ingredients entering the country and penalize offending offshore manufacturers. He said the agency staffs a mere 300 import inspectors to review 13 million shipments of foreign products annually.

“The FDA can inspect so little that it can only generally look at something they know is a problem,” he said.

Under such circumstances, he continued, even sampling becomes problematic. FDA inspectors were able to sample 19,000 items last year while there were 199,000 shipments from China alone.

“If you had at least a decent sampling plan so that you could look at a reasonable amount of food, then at least the message would go back to the exporting countries that someone’s looking. Right now the FDA can only inspect about 1% of these foods, which is virtually nothing,” he said.

When asked by the correspondent how the FDA knows there’s a problem, Hubbard explained its inspectors take advantage of their best risk-management techniques.

“But, unfortunately, when you’re inspecting so little, you’re not able to do a particularly thorough job,” he observed.

Hubbard said the most ominous problem exists with ingredients rather than raw food that arrives from countries with questionable or no food-safety or quality-control procedures. Asian and African countries are most culpable, he added.

“You need to put in place is a system to make sure it stays that way.”
“American food processors take great steps to protect the food. The problem is they can be victimized too by unscrupulous exporters who send us food that no one is looking at. So the issue is not whether our food is safe. It probably is in most cases. But there clearly can be things slipping through the net, much as we saw wheat gluten do with pet food,” he said.

Hubbard said many ingredients come from Asia, India, Pakistan, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and other countries that have less developed regulatory systems.

“Which is why you need a strong regulatory system in the United States. When the system over there is weak, you need strong here but unfortunately we have weak there and weak here,” he said.

Hubbard said more inspectors would be able to open more containers of, for example, wheat gluten and soy lethicin, and “make sure they’re okay before they ever get to our manufacturers who will make the finished food that we will eat everyday.”

Furthermore, these inspectors, who should be authorized to halt shipments, would send a clear signal to the producers that they will turn back unsafe food that is being shipped to America, he said.

Hubbard favors granting the FDA, which is mandated to regulate 80% of the food supply with only 20% of the resources that Congress provides, as much authority to deal with food-safety and quality issues as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “which is if they find a problem in another country, they can say to that country, you’re not sending us anymore food until you’ve shown us that you can send it to us safely.”

He said consumers along with the industry should get the message to Capitol Hill that Congress needs to fix the threat to America’s food supply by fixing the FDA.

CHINA RESPONDS China played down international concerns about tainted food exports this week, arguing that the problems were not as bad as claimed, reported the Miami Herald. Chinese officials also displayed seized counterfeit products to show that authorities were enforcing safety protections.

'”Yes, there are now some problems of food safety of Chinese products. However, they are not serious. We should not exaggerate those problems,'' Li Dongsheng, vice minister for the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, told reporters at the lab, according to the Miami Herald. China has developed ''very good, very complete methods'' to regulate product safety, Li was quoted as saying.

To bolster its case, Beijing organized an unusual visit by more than 100 foreign and domestic reporters to a food-safety lab and storehouse, the Miami Herald said, where bogus goods from chewing gum to soy sauce were stacked on shelves and arrayed in rows.


More from our partners