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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What's in your food?

The recent taint in pet food caused by the chemical melamine raises some interesting questions about the American food supply. With more raw materials and ingredients coming from overseas, how do we know what's safe?

The pet food scare was caused by an apparently common Chinese practice of putting melanine in animal feed to mimic an increase in protein. The melanine has no nutritional value itself, but it does increase the nitrogen level in feed which is used as a proxy for protein when the food is tested for quality. In other words, it's cheating. In no sense of the word could melanine be considered food:
Wikipedia: Melamine is...combined with formaldehyde to produce melamine resin, a very durable thermosetting plastic, and of melamine foam, a polymeric cleaning product. The end products include countertops, fabrics, glues and flame retardants.
Problems with contaminated feed aren't the only danger. Adulterated Chinese chemicals being used in pharmaceuticals caused several dozen deaths in Panama when the materials were used in cough syrup. The Chinese manufacturers, interested in boosting the bottom line, first replaced pharmaceutical quality glycerin - a sugar alcohol - with industrial grade material - used in smokeless gunpowder and as a lubricant - and then substituted another chemical entirely. The substitute, diethylene glycol, is not intended for human consumption:
The syrupy poison, diethylene glycol, is an indispensable part of the modern world, an industrial solvent and prime ingredient in some antifreeze.
The behavior of the Chinese manufacturers mimics that of American food processors a hundred years ago, before Upton Sinclair's The Jungle generated momentum for the Pure Food and Drug Act and the beginning of government safeguards over the food supply. The challenge now is that these regulations govern American made products and do not sufficiently shield Americans from adulterated substances produced overseas:
The tainted ingredients were not caught at the borders because with the growing volume of food and food ingredient imports, only 1 to 2 percent of these imports are inspected, let alone tested for foreign matter like melamine. (emphasis mine)
Not only does the Food and Drug Administration inspect far fewer imports (1%) than the USDA does meat imports (16%), the FDA lacks another crucial safeguard:
The FDA also doesn't require that exporting countries have safety systems equivalent to those in the USA. The USDA does that for countries that export meat and poultry, and the Government Accountability Office — the investigative arm of Congress — has said for at least a decade that the FDA should, too.
In addition, the FDA has actually reduced its inspection of foreign foods in recent years as it has cut back on inspection staff. This despite evidence that imports probably need inspection more than domestic food:
A 2003 FDA study found pesticide violations in 6.1% of imported foods sampled vs. 2.4% of domestic foods. It has not been updated. Several years earlier, the FDA found salmonella and shigella, which can cause dysentery, in 4% of imported fruits and vegetables vs. 1.1% of domestic products.
If you think the FDA should consider doing a bit more to ensure food safety, write your representative or your senator. You can also learn more about food safety from the folks at Kansas State University, who tell you: "don't eat poop."

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