Congress wants food for thought on FDA

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KAI RYSSDAL: Elsewhere in the nation's capital today the Food and Drug Administration appointed a food safety czar.

The FDA's trying to deal with the fallout from the contaminated pet food scandal. And it's probably not a coincidence that Congress started looking at whether the agency's actually doing its job today. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has said he worries every night about threats to the U.S. food supply. He belongs to a lobbying group called the Coalition for a Stronger FDA.

Former FDA commissioner William Hubbard is also a member. He says these days, the FDA is overwhelmed by a flood of food imports from around the world. As for the solution:

WILLIAM HUBBARD: My group believes it is an immediate and massive infusion of resources that allows FDA inspectors to examine and test these commodities before they get in our food.

Right now, the FDA inspects just 1 percent of the food shipments entering the U.S.

Bob Bauer is president of the Association of Food Industries, which represents food importers. He says importers themselves inspect about 25 percent of products.

BOB BAUER: No company wants its product to cause any harm to anybody. Not only because, you know, they just don't want to see that from a human standpoint, but also the monetary impact to them would be tremendous obviously. They spent, in many cases, you know, most of their lives trying to build up these companies and build up these brands.

He says there are frequent inspections of new products. They become more random over time.

Bauer says the FDA couldn't carry out that many checks, or the U.S. food supply would slow to a costly trickle. But, William Hubbard says, it must do more.

HUBBARD: We believe our food is safe, but the risk, the threat is substantial. And when FDA is so weak in its capacity to review these foods, it's clear that foreign exporters can send food here with impunity if it's unsafe.

In fact, he says, some experts believe foreign countries send the U.S. their worst food, knowing the FDA is too stretched to notice.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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