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China's not the only one with a melamine problem

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: A couple of weeks ago the Chinese government convicted the former head of its FDA for taking bribes and it sentenced him to death. It's tough to guess on the timing of that one but the news came right on the heels of the poisoned pet-food scare.

The American judicial system's not nearly as harsh. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials are probably sweating a bit today. The agency has announced that melamine — the same industrial chemical that poisoned so much pet food — has found its way into animal feed made right here in the U.S. And the FDA's now having to warn other countries about the dangers of American food products.

Marketplace's Steve Henn reports.


STEVE HENN: That's right, it's not just Chinese manufacturers who've been adding melamine to animal feed. Melamine-contaminated shrimp feed made by Zeigler Brothers in Pennsylvania has apparently been shipped all over the world.

Caroline Smith Dewaal at the Center for Science and the Public Interest says the Food and Drug Administration's overwhelmed.

Caroline Smith Dewaal: The truth is, FDA doesn't have the resources, the staff or inspectors to monitor the food supply in the way it needs to to really protect American consumers.

Not to mention the Canadians, Brazilians and Jamaicans who received this most recent batch of contaminated products

The FDA says there's little danger to consumers, but Dewaal believes this is yet another sign the agency's food-inspection program needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Scott Gottlieb, who was a deputy commissioner of the FDA until earlier this year, agrees. But Gottlieb says simply hiring more inspectors isn't enough.

Scott Gottlieb: Even if you were to double the number of inspectors and double the number of inspections that the agency conducts each year, I don't think that you would address the underlying problems.

Gottlieb believes that in a complicated global food market there's no way the FDA can be everywhere at once.

Gottlieb: Congress needs to give the agency resources to invest in the kinds of tools that would allow it to more intelligently target its inspections.

Gottlieb says this might mean allowing "reputable firms" to police their own supply chains. But many consumer advocates say that wouldn't work — and recent history shows why.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.
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