The deaths of 16 cats and dogs and sickening of thousands more last month, was blamed on pet food contaminated with the chemical melamine that was imported from China. But long before the tainted foods arrived at the grocery store, U.S. officials were concerned about the potential threat of a similar event in the human food chain.
This week, the Agriculture Department said up to 6,000 hogs in seven states that consumed melamine-tainted feed cannot be safely sold to humans, and should be euthanized. Several hundred of the swine have already entered the human food supply, but federal officials say the concentration of contaminants in the hogs likely is too low to harm humans.
Each year, billions of dollars worth of foreign food ingredients pass through the U.S. inspection system. The products are used domestically in everything from salad dressing to ice cream. By its own admission though, the FDA only has enough inspectors to check about one percent of the 8.9 million items imported last year.
Domestic foods typically face greter scrutiny, but that didn't stop members of a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee this week from prodding industry representatives to do more.
Rep. Greg Walden, R – Oregon: "For the sake of consumers, what can be done for food safety…"
That was the question lawmakers asked producers this week at a hearing on the Food and Drug Administrations ability to secure and protect the nation's food supply.
Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R – Texas: "If I was a conspiracy theorist Mr. Chairman, I would connect the dots and ask if someone was trying to undermine confidence in the U.S. food industry."
The hearings was held in the wake of a salmonella outbreak in February that sickened more than 400 people who consumed tainted peanut butter, and last falls E. coli outbreak which involved spinach and led to 3 deaths and over 200 illnesses.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D – Michigan: "Has the FDA ever inspected your facility?"
Charles Sweat, President Natural Selection Foods: "Yes, we've worked with the FDA on a collaborative basis on our programs over the years. They come in frequently…"
Rep. Bart Stupak, D – Michigan: "But your not required to do any testing?"
Charles Sweat, President Natural Selection Foods: "The voluntary regulations and guidelines don't require any testing."
Rep. Bart Stupak, D – Michigan: "So they're just looking at how you handle product?"
Charles Sweat, President Natural Selection Foods: "They're just looking at the process."
Rep. Bart Stupak, D – Michigan: "So other than making sure that the area is sanitary there is no testing for E. coli?"
Charles Sweat, President Natural Selection Foods: "There is no testing at this time."
Representative Diana DeGette, a democrat from Colorado does not see the latest string of incidents as aberrations but rather "A systemic problem" that calls for a "systemic solution."
David Colo, Senior Vice President of Operations Con-Agra Foods Inc.: "I don't want to speak for the FDA, but when the question was asked…"
Rep. Diana DeGette, D - Colorado: "I'm not asking you to speak for the FDA, I'm asking you to speak for your company."
DeGette has introduced legislation that would give the FDA and Agriculture Department the authority to mandate recalls. Other legislative efforts include proposals to create a single Food Safety Administration. . Currently, USDA inspects beef, pork and poultry, but FDA oversees inspections for processed food, vegetables, seafood, food additives and livestock feed.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D – Michigan: "Our food industry is reactive instead of proactive."
Officials from the FDA will be testifying before the committee in the weeks ahead.