There's never a good time for the outbreak of a spate of negative publicity about food safety, but the current moment is particularly inauspicious.
After all, the produce side of the food distribution industry has made major strides toward eradicating the downside of last September's safety crisis concerning leafy green produce. To cite a couple of examples drawn from recent issues of SN, the Produce Marketing Association found that consumer confidence in the safety of produce increased sharply in March (SN, April 16). Yet, sales of some relevant produce remain depressed. Packaged spinach remains off nearly 27% for the four weeks that ended Feb. 24 as compared to the like period a year earlier (April 23). So work remains before produce fully recovers.
Unfortunately, that work may be slowed by yet another blast of bad news concerning food safety. To be sure, the latest developments have nothing to do with produce. That's relatively good news for growers and shippers, but bad news about food safety tends to reflect negatively across the entire product offer of supermarkets. Let's take a closer look at last week's developments. Also see Page 1. One discouraging report was issued by the Associated Press in which it was claimed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has all but ignored inspections of imported food ingredients such as oils, spices, flours and gums. One former FDA inspector is quoted as saying he didn't recall ever inspecting food ingredients. Perhaps that's because they don't present the obvious and immediate danger of spoiled food so they get a pass. But they shouldn't. Ingredients go into countless processed foods, so if they go wrong they can wreak havoc.
Naturally, that brings to mind the incident of contaminated pet food. As it turns out, the ingredient that caused some of the problem was melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizer. It also has the property of boosting protein counts in food, so it may have been introduced into rice protein imported from China for use in pet feed. Melamine is not approved for use in animal feed, nor for any food product.
The present, and widely reported, fear is that melamine may have entered the human food supply by way of grain products used in the manufacture of bread, baby formula, pastas, energy bars and other products. Moreover, numerous hogs and chickens have been fed pet-food byproducts, thereby raising the possibility of melamine's introduction into the food supply.
Should these setbacks be laid at the feet of agencies such as FDA that are increasingly hobbled by reduced resources? Yes and no, according to one expert: “The FDA does not have the personnel to inspect the 25% of the gross domestic product that they regulate … [and] personnel levels are flat or shrinking. So I think what we can count on is that the agency is going to continue to be smart and target its resources, but I don't believe that under the current budget climate we should expect to see a massive increase in personnel resources at FDA.”
That observation was drawn from a major roundtable project on food safety that will appear in next week's SN. Keep an eye out then for much more on this important topic.