In 2007, contamination of a large portion of our nation's pet food supply was responsible for sickening and killing thousands of our nation's pets. Ultimately, we found out that the source was contaminated ingredients primarily shipped from China. Health issues with our pets were traced to wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate that had been contaminated with melamine, a byproduct of plastic manufacturing. It was eventually discovered that the melamine was added intentionally in order to raise nitrogen levels and â€œincreaseâ€Â tested protein levels in the pet food. Quite a few of our largest pet food manufacturers were using these much cheaper foreign ingredients in many of their pet food brands.
Since that time, we have also discovered that these same contaminated feed ingredients have made their way into hog and poultry feeds. It has been estimated that as many as 6,000 hogs and up to 20 million chickens potentially were fed feed containing small amounts of melamine, derived from the same contaminated ingredients originating in China. The USDA and FDA have since cleared the pork and poultry products, resulting from these animals in question, as safe to eat, stating that the amounts of contaminate (melamine) are so small that they do not pose a threat to human health. Dr. David Acheson, FDA Assistant Commissioner of Food Protection and Dr. Kenneth Peterson, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Assistant Administrator for Field Operations, said that the both agencies are legally bound to depopulate any animals found to have consumed adulterated feed, but stated that the dilution of the contaminates makes it unlikely to sicken humans, basically stating that our exposure from eating these products is limited.
However, the investigations resulting from the melamine contamination have served to reveal a much larger problem facing the American consumer. In 2007, several former FDA chiefs testified that the FDA simply does not have the resources necessary to prevent pathogens and industrial chemicals, derived from foreign sources, from adulterating the nation's food supply (Meatingplace.com, May 2, 2007). Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler told members of the House Oversight Committee that, "simply put, our food safety system is broken. The reality is that there currently is no mandate, no leadership, no resources, nor scientific research base for prevention of food safety systems." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight Committee, stated that, "Incompetent government can only have deadly consequences. The FDA is in crisis. We need to act now."
A 2007 article in the New York Times, Food Imports often Escape Scrutiny, by Alexei Barrionuevo, detailed the then-current status of our ability, or rather lack of ability, to adequately inspect foreign food imports and thus safeguard the American consumer. Barrionuevo states that in 2006, inspectors sampled just 20,662 shipments out of more than 8.9 million arriving at U.S. ports of entry. That is an astoundingly low 0.23%! That means that 99.77% of all foreign food shipments into the US in 2006 were not inspected. China, the country in question concerning the melamine contaminated feed ingredients, has quickly become the third largest importer of food products, by value, into the U.S. Only 2% of those shipments were inspected.
William Hubbard, former FDA associate commissioner, states that, "The public thinks the food supply is much more protected than it is. If people really knew how weak the FDA program is, they would be shocked."
The fact is we are relying more and more on imported food products and ingredients. The recent emphasis on globalization has helped fuel this rise in foreign food imports. U.S. food processors are getting an increasingly greater amount of product from foreign sources, primarily because they are much cheaper than domestic sources. Many of these products are coming from less developed countries. As a matter of fact, we are now importing almost $80 billion annually in foreign food products (United States International Trade Commission).
In December 2004, Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, commented that, "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do." This comment was made in relation to the flood of foreign food imports and our own weakened food safety regime.
Currently, more than 130 countries ship food products into the U.S., with Canada, Mexico, and China holding the top three spots. International Trade Commission figures show that we are also experiencing significant increases in products such as residues, waste from food industries, prepared animal feed, and various extracts.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, states that, "In the same meal these days we may be eating food from several regions of the world...U.S. food processors may be looking for cheap new sources of products, but they may pay for it down the line."
William Hubbard feels that our food risks today can be chemical, pesticide-related or bacterial in nature. He states that none of these risk factors can be determined by simply looking at the food. Mr. Hubbard's opinion is that the other countries of the world are looking at the U.S. as a dumping ground for sub-standard food products. He states that poor products being shipped in from other countries will get in and that the perpetrators will not get caught, have the products returned, or face any other penalty.
For instance, many of our fish and seafood products come from Asia. It appears that some seafood products are being produced in ponds that are "fueled" by untreated waste products, including human waste. These producers are using high levels of antibiotics and other chemicals to help control waste related problems and to keep the fish and other seafood "healthy." These food products are being shipped into the U.S. and are sold on the market without the consumer being aware of their origin, in many cases.
So, the question facing all of us is: How safe and reliable is our food supply? Do we really want to depend on foreign sources for our most critical need of nourishment? It is becoming increasingly clear that we all, as consumers, must be fully aware of where our food comes from and how safe is it. It is incumbent upon us to ask questions of our food suppliers (grocers, restaurants, etc.) about where they source their products. The first question we should ask is whether the food product in question was produced entirely in the U.S. Secondly, were any foreign feedstuffs or ingredients used in the production of this food product?
You are buying the product. You have a right to know where your food comes from. Ask. If the particular retailer refuses to answer your question, find another one who will. It is important and it could have a profound impact upon the health of you and your family.