Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Melamine: Pandoras Lid?

The continuing story of the pet food recall

Pet and human foods increasingly originate from an expanding global community. Although, the strain on US regulatory and inspection agencies has been an ongoing issue, the recent FDA press report (see below: Caveat emptor; Caveat bestia) illustrates just how big the problem can potentially be. If not in critical condition, the US capacity to guard our nations food supplies is certainly seriously ill.

Carolyn Smith De Waal, director of foods safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest states that :

"They (FDA) have fewer people inspecting product at the ports than ever before. Until China gets programs in place to verify the safety of their products, they need to be inspected by US inspectors. This open-door policy on food ingredients is an open invitation for an attack on the food supply, either intentional or unintentional."

This may not be as far fetched now as it initially may have sounded before the pet food recall. The FDA and the USDA are increasing vigilance and enforcement related to increasing concerns that the human food supply may be at risk. By being granted permission to inspect Chinese food treatment facilities to enforcing the quarantine or slaughter of some 6,000 hogs after ingesting melamine tainted salvage pet food, the FDA & USDA are actively attempting to contain the situation.

At the same time, gauging the size of the problem and any possible long term implications will likely prove far more challenging. Scientists, as yet , are not sure how the melamine caused the deaths of what may prove to be thousands of our pets.

Melamine, although illegal in any amount in pet foods, is not believed to be toxic. Melamine, boiled down from coal, is used broadly in China to create plastic and fertilizer. In addition, it seems to be the "economic adulterer" of choice to dress poor quality food stuffs some of which have found their way to US pet foods. It could be possible that melamine is indeed toxic and the science needs to catch up with its effects, but could there be other causes?

What if , as unlikely as it seems, there is no direct link to melamine? Could melamine just be a marker for another as yet unidentified chemical or toxin? How, if it is toxic, does it affect humans? Researchers are working at a fever pitch to find out.

Whatever the final outcome, this whole episode has shone a light on a gaping deficiency concerning the nations food supply. Washington might actually see the writing on the wall as Chinese suppliers readily admit to utilizing melamine.

Legislators and scientists now want to modernize the FDA's outdated and underpowered authority and budget:

"Relying largely on laws passed in 1906 and 1938, which among other things empower it to detain "filthy, putrid, or decomposed" foods, the FDA today oversees $ 1 trillion worth of products annually, including about half of all imports.The $2 billion agency regulates products that together account for fully 25 cents of every dollar American consumers spend, and sheer volume makes it impossible to inspect more than a small fraction of incoming food."

Although melamine tainted food ingredients are front and center right now, I have to wonder about other products imported from China such as a plethora of herbal supplements, elixirs, and nostrums often used in "complementary and alternative" medicine circles (The FDA is still attempting to deal effectively with this topic and that is a whole other story!).

Though the media & the feds are picking on China right now, that does not leave other countries (including the US, and for that matter, the media & the feds) off any kind of hook. At any rate, we will continue to monitor events and see how this investigation unfolds.

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