WASHINGTON – Bowing to growing nationwide concern, the Food and Drug Administration named a food safety czar Tuesday and pledged to develop “a visionary strategy for food safety and defense” that takes into account increasing U.S. dependence on food imports in a global economy.
The development came as the agency said its investigation of contaminated pet food ingredients from China has expanded to include feed consumed by millions of chickens that most likely already have been consumed in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a former FDA commissioner pronounced the food safety system “broken,” and leading Democrats in Congress moved Tuesday to authorize federal regulators to monitor food imports more closely.
Appointed as food safety czar was Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA’s food division, who oversaw last year’s investigation into tainted spinach from California.
While he acknowledged that the issues raised by the pet food recall are serious, Acheson said the risk to people remains low.
“We do not believe there is any significant threat to human health,” Acheson said.
Although chickens were fed contaminated food, the additive used in the feed would have been diluted many times over before the birds reached dinner tables around the country, he explained.
The promise of a new food safety strategy recalls an earlier FDA effort in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to improve protection of food imports. Known as the Import Strategic Plan, it ultimately was abandoned because of tight federal budgets and a lack of official will. Currently, the FDA inspects only about 1 percent of food imports under its jurisdiction, which includes bulk ingredients, fresh fruits and vegetables, and many grocery items.
The safety plan also will address problems in domestic production, such as last year’s E. coli outbreak linked to California-grown spinach.
Consumer advocates said they are skeptical that creating a safety czar and a new food strategy would make much difference without substantial new funding and stronger enforcement powers for the FDA. For example, the agency cannot require foreign producers to adhere to U.S. food safety standards.
Imported pet food ingredients contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, are believed to have killed at least 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs, according to consumer reports submitted to the FDA.
Some of the tainted protein concentrate in the pet food also found its way into commercial animal feed for hogs and chickens destined for human consumption.