FDA creates food safety czar’
By Stephen J. Hedges
WASHINGTON The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Tuesday created a new senior position to supervise the agency’s regulation of food safety, even as the agency disclosed that 3 million chickens raised on 38 Indiana poultry farms have been added to the growing list of animals that consumed feed tainted with a chemical used to make plastics.
FDA and Department of Agriculture officials said they chose not to issue a recall for the chickens because they were given the feed in February, and that most have already been processed and sold in the market place.
David Acheson, the FDA official who assumed the new post of assistant commissioner for food protection, also said that the amount of feed contaminated is minimal by the time it is fed to livestock that is eventually consumed by humans.
“The dilution factors here are enormous,” Acheson said. “We have a raw ingredient that is made, wheat gluten; only some percentage of it is the melamine compound that’s used to manufacture pet food, and only a small amount of the pet food is used to manufacture the feed to hogs and chickens.
“If you multiply all those factors in, we believe the likelihood of illness to humans is extremely small, really no likelihood of a problem,” he said.
Congressional critics dubbed the newly created FDA position as the “food safety czar” and derided it as likely to be ineffective.
FDA and Agriculture officials talking to reporters in a conference call declined to name the Indiana farms or the poultry producers who raised and processed the 3 million chickens. Kenneth Petersen of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service said that Americans consume about 9 billion chickens each year.
The bad feed was used at 30 poultry “broiler” farms and eight breeding farms, according to Agriculture spokeswoman Corrine Hirsch. The news came four days after the same agencies disclosed that the tainted feed, which began as dog and cat food, was distributed to hog farms.
Government officials believe that the pet and livestock feed was contaminated when the two Chinese companies that sold the ingredients wheat gluten and rice protein to a U.S. pet food company added the chemical melamine to its shipments. Melamine is used to make plastics, and it artificially boosts the protein content, and thus the price, of the wheat gluten and rice protein, U.S. officials said.
The gluten and protein were imported to the U.S. primarily for use in pet food, and the existence of melamine was discovered when dogs and cats began to fall ill and die, usually of kidney problems.
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The FDA has expanded an import alert on wheat and protein concentrates from China, hoping to stem further exports that may be contaminated.
FDA investigators have also arrived in China to determine if melamine was added to the shipments that came to the U.S.
Walter Batts of the FDA’s office of international programs said that two FDA investigators in China have been briefed by the Chinese government on the food production process. A third investigator, he said, will arrive Wednesday, though work has been slowed by China’s May Day holiday.
The FDA said it cannot state how many pets have died due to contaminated feed, but one official said that about half of the 8,000 animal food complaint calls the agency has logged involved a claim that a pet has died.
The scare has led to the recall of 153 pet food products.
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Petersen said that authorities are concerned that melamine may be combining with another ingredient in the feed to cause the severe pet illnesses. Government officials speaking Tuesday repeatedly suggested that the level of melamine in the pet food might not have been large enough to cause illness by itself.
At least 6,000 hogs will have to be slaughtered because they ate the melamine-tainted feed. Petersen said, however, that about 500 of those hogs are no longer on farms and investigators are trying to determine if they have already been killed and consumed.
As in the case of the hogs, the chickens were given surplus pet food that was sold as livestock feed, a practice that allowed the contamination to migrate from household pets to livestock and to human food.
About 45 consumers in California have eaten pork that came from hogs that consumed the melamine-tainted feed, according to state officials there. FDA officials have said that the effects of melamine on humans are thought to be minimal, though research into that topic has been limited.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the FDA’s food safety apparatus “is broken down.” The new FDA administrative position, he said, “doesn’t really affect the core issue here. We need to have a dramatic change.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on Tuesday introduced a bill, which Durbin plans to co-sponsor in the Senate, that would allow the FDA to order recalls of contaminated food, create an early warning system for problems with human or pet food and broaden the agency’s power over food labeling, importation and record-keeping. Under current rules, food manufacturers must issue recall notices.
“I think the FDA needs to do more than just create a food safety czar,” DeLauro said. “This is about reshuffling the management, and I think it does little to focus the agency on its mission to protect the public health.”
(National correspondent Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.
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