IT TOOK scores of dead and sickened dogs and cats for the government to create a new position at the Food and Drug Administration to zero in on food imports and contamination issues. Will it now take an even worse scenario for the FDA to initiate aggressive new changes in the way it inspects imported products for human consumption?
As disturbing as that possibility is, nearly six years after the United States was viciously attacked by terrorists, it appears more likely than not, considering the FDA's sorry track record. Consider the agency's response to the recent contamination of pet food from China - it created a "food czar" to focus on the safety of imported food.
Creating new jobs in government bureaucracies to tackle new concerns is a time-honored tactic to give the appearance of progress. But despite his best efforts, David Acheson, assistant FDA commissioner for food protection, was less than reassuring about his new responsibilities.
While he insisted the nation's food supply was safe, he also acknowledged that the FDA hasn't even collected all the evidence of possible food contamination in recent cases. After the contaminated ingredients were finally identified in the imported pet food, apprehension grew that contamination had made its way into feed for animals intended for human consumption.
In congressional testimony Mr. Acheson dismissed that fear and said he was confident the wheat flour tainted with melamine, an ingredient used to make plastic, had not affected food consumed by humans. "I can give you every assurance that the wheat flour used to make contaminated pet food (has) not entered the human supply chain," he said.
But worried lawmakers were not convinced, inasmuch as the FDA only discovered the contaminated pet food spiked with melamine after so many pets fell ill or died. The strikingly small percentage of federal inspections of imported food didn't intercept the contaminated imports.
Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told Mr. Acheson he had the uncomfortable feeling the country just got lucky this time. "The next time tainted food or feed products slip through the very large crack in our import inspection system, we may be forced to confront a much more serious situation in terms of animal or human health," he said.
Mr. Acheson reverted to the usual bureaucratic refrain that more money and people were needed to better police the nation's food supply. He also emphasized the FDA will be designing a new food safety program to more thoroughly cover foreign food imports.
That's all well and fine, but what happens in the meantime? While the amount of foreign food imports has risen dramatically in the last few years, the FDA currently only inspects about 1 percent of the $60 billion imported annually.
Even when there is suspicion that contamination may be more widespread than is known, the agency is hesitant to intervene - as in the case of contaminated fish food from Canada used at U.S. fish farms producing food for human consumption.
There can't be a more urgent priority than fixing the government's flawed food safety system before we run out of luck.