Melamine Contamination Links Port Security to Food Safety

Discussion
Apr 24, 2007

By George Anderson

It’s fairly straightforward. The U.S. is an importing nation and it simply is too onerous (see time-intensive and costly) a process to inspect everything that comes into the country’s ports. That’s why food ingredient shipments are allowed in, with port authorities assuming companies on the receiving end of the shipment will do the necessary testing to make sure the product and, ultimately, consumers are safe. As now appears evident, that “system” did not work in the recent case that saw pets become sick and in 16 cases die from pet food tainted with wheat gluten containing melamine.

According to The Associated Press, imports from China (where the melamine came from), India and Mexico often fail Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections but the sheer number of imports from those and other countries prevents most food ingredients coming into the U.S. from ever being inspected. The FDA said it checked about one percent of imported food shipments into the country last year.

Michael Doyle, a microbiologist at the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety and former member of federal task forces on food security, said, “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to figure out that … if someone were to put some type of a toxic chemical into a product that’s trusted, that could do a lot of damage before it’s detected.”

In the meantime, U.S. imports of food ingredients grew to $7.6 billion last year up from $4.4 billion in 2001. Other food imports grew from $38.3 billion to $63 billion over the same period.

The FDA looks to other countries to assist it by providing oversight of products being exported to the U.S. but that is low on the priority list of foreign governments.

Discussion Questions: Is the current system sufficient to protect the safety of the imported food supply to the U.S.? Do the economic realities mean we continue on as-is or is there a real need to change our approach to the whole system of inspecting foods and ingredients being brought into the country?

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13 Comments on "Melamine Contamination Links Port Security to Food Safety"


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Li McClelland
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Li McClelland
15 years 26 days ago
Earlier today I spent a couple of hours watching the House of Representatives sub-committee hearings on food safety. On the witness panel were high ranking officials from Con Agra (salmonella peanut butter), and the California company whose spinach launched the recent E. Coli recalls. The panel also included the CEOs of Menu Foods (pet food maker of original recalled brands) and ChemNutra (the US importer of the contaminated/adulterated Chinese wheat gluten that got into the pet foods). I think most consumers would be shocked to know how few of the foodstuffs and raw ingredients that reach our shores from abroad are inspected, certified, verified, tested, etc. Throw in to the mix language and translation issues, lax sanitation and processing standards in some export countries, and in the extreme case corrupt businesses and complicit governments and you have the potential for real food borne disaster even without worrying about bioterrorism. Food labeling (mandatory) that clearly identifies countries of origin of ingredients will not assure food safety but will allow careful consumers to make choices as to… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 26 days ago

This is one of my cliche days so here goes–you pays your money and you takes your chances. People have been persuaded that cheap food is a god given right; government agrees and does its best to provide even when that means taking risks. On the basis, of course, that most of the time they will get away with it. When they don’t, there is brief hair-tearing and loud recrimination but putting things right means increasing costs which means increasing prices. It just isn’t going to happen. So–is the current system sufficient? No Way. Is there a real need for change? Absolutely. Can or will it be done? Not in a million years. As the world gets smaller, the problems will only get bigger but as long as they remain proportionate, somehow there will never be enough “resources” to justify change.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
15 years 26 days ago

Is the current system sufficient to deal with the problem? Of course not. There are not enough agents to inspect every container, crate, box, and/or item that crosses the border. The real question at this point is do either companies or the government have enough resources to inspect those who are certifying the quality of products?

Charlie Powell
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Charlie Powell
15 years 26 days ago
There are some fundamental crisis and risk communications principles at play here, too. When people have little control over a situation, they will behaviorally exacerbate the perceived risk, even to the point of taking on an increased risk, expense, or both. People fear flying because they don’t control the aircraft but they will readily jump into an automobile even though the aircraft is several thousand fold safer. They assume because they operate the vehicle, they reduce or even eliminate the risk. The FDA’s food safety system by size and funding is set up to be less than effective when contamination or scares emerges. FDA can’t inspect it all. People are not in control of food ingredients and don’t want to be. As long as nothing happens, they trust by default inattentiveness self-policing by the industry. Paradoxically, when a threat occurs however, their behavior (read consumer choices) often change through fear to eat even riskier foods or modify or eliminate essential nutrients. Food safety and quality assurance is vital to this country’s security as well as… Read more »
George Anderson
Guest
15 years 26 days ago

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today that it would look for melamine contamination in imports of wheat gluten, corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein, rice bran and rice protein. The FDA is concerned that the chemical may have found its way into the feed of thousands of hogs on U.S. farms.

Connie Kski
Guest
Connie Kski
15 years 26 days ago

We need to stop value engineering the quality right out of products–especially when it comes to foods. You get what you pay for has never been more true.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
15 years 26 days ago

This is both an issue of nations, and an issue of companies. The government laid out the guidelines that have to be met. The importer assumed that the ingredient met specifications, and Menu assumed that the importer was supplying them with quality ingredients. And they both assumed that the FDA was playing a role in making sure the imports are safe.

Certainly the government plays a role in ensuring safety and security around our imports. But ultimately, it’s the individual companies’ responsibility to do due diligence too. Ultimately, they bear the brunt of the results if they don’t make sure they’re getting what they were expecting–as I’m sure Menu in particular can attest to right now.

Chuck Hartwig
Guest
Chuck Hartwig
15 years 26 days ago

We are under funded for inspectors and that will not change until there is a major problem. At this time, many consumers are enjoying really inexpensive food and this is what they expect the manufacturers to provide. When there is a problem, the first thought is to blame the government. Reputable companies have their own quality control departments and make plant visits, including overseas markets, to ensure the quality. This is expensive, and only the larger companies can do it.

Raymond D. Jones
Guest
Raymond D. Jones
15 years 26 days ago

Recent news about food contamination shows we have enough difficulty dealing with meats and vegetables grown right here in the U.S. Add to that the manufacturing of processed foods and the task of government safety inspectors and regulators becomes monumental.

The proportion of imported foods and ingredients continues to increase and U.S. companies continue to move manufacturing overseas. Given the experience of poor manufacturing practices in Asia, it not surprising to encounter poor quality finished goods. This can be a problem with clock radios, but a tragedy with food products.

Unless other nations are forced to raise their standards, this problem will just get worse. Perhaps we need to rethink the drive for lower costs and begin to focus on comparable quality and safety.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
15 years 26 days ago

Did the rules change? The answer is no. When importing food/consumable products there are some basic rules. If manufacturing is involved, the facility must meet FDA standards and should be certified.

This latest case is more an example of inexperience. The world does not operate on U.S.A. standards. When we provide a list of what should not be in the product, suppliers generally work hard to comply. But if an item/substance is included, but was not on the list, then the supplier has complied with the buyer’s specification. When product arrives it must be tested by law. The problem is, many substances have been prohibited in the U.S.A. for years. This being the case, testing does not generally cover these substances. This is where the system breaks down. The buyer assumes the seller knows these substances are banned and they don’t. Better and very specific communications are required.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 26 days ago

The FDA has been underfunded since Forever. This will be corrected Never. Food inspection would be done very well if litigation by those victimized was encouraged. Product liability insurance isn’t cheap. Making it more expensive for the sloppy producers is the best protection the public can get.

John Skutnik
Guest
John Skutnik
15 years 24 days ago

Would we all be acting so complacently had the tainted product been cereal or baby food? I doubt it. I think it will be interesting to see how well the pet food industry recovers, given its collective fingerpointing, inaction and obfuscation. Many pet owners will certainly seek alternatives to the products of these companies.

Connie Kski
Guest
Connie Kski
15 years 13 days ago

Redbird’s comment is interesting. I am not feeling any complacency from the public regarding the current pet food crisis. Of course, I am a pet supplies retailer. My brands are all upscale brands and I’ve returned about $1000 (my cost) of food to my distributors so I have definitely seen an impact. I noted that my sales of pet food for April are up a significant amount as compared to March 06 and April 07.

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