Chinese Import Scandal Demonstrates FDA Failings, Congress Told

CSPI Urges New Money for FDA, Ultimately Single Food Safety Agency


WASHINGTON—While all imported meat and poultry products are visually inspected at the border and subject to microbial and chemical testing, 99 percent of imported seafood, produce, animal feeds, and grains pass through U.S. borders uninspected. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that’s because meat and poultry products are regulated by the well funded U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and most other foods are regulated by the woefully underfunded Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal, testifying before the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight today, said that even when USDA and FDA are operating at the same port, they don’t share inspectors. DeWaal said that Congress should dramatically increase funding for the FDA and modernize food safety laws that are more than a century old. Ultimately, Congress should create a single unified Food Safety Agency—a proposal championed by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa Delauro (D-CT) and recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our food safety laws are ready for an extreme makeover,” said DeWaal. “When 80 percent of Americans believe that ‘made in China’ means ‘may be contaminated,’ we clearly have a crisis of confidence on our hands. Consumers are sick and tired of getting sick from unsafe imported and domestic food.”

Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies, is proposing $48.4 million in new funding for the FDA, including $21 million to increase inspections and $11 million to develop rapid-response methods. This new funding is the first in a multi-year effort to increase the FDA budget. To increase inspections of FDA-regulated imports to 10 percent would require an additional 1,600 full-time inspectors; increasing inspection to 20 percent of imports would require 3,200 full-time inspectors and significantly more new funding.

Imports of FDA-regulated foods have more than doubled in the last 7 years—from 4 million shipments in 2000 to approximately 10 million shipments in 2006. In the last 10 years, the volume of food imports from China have increased by 350 percent, from $880 million worth to about $4 billion.

“China’s food regulatory system isn’t ready for the 21st century, but then again, neither is ours,” DeWaal said. “Congress should put a single, well-funded U.S. agency in charge of food safety and not rely solely on other countries to do this job for us.” 

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