The USDA is expected to announce today whether 20 million chickens who were fed melamine-contaminated feed are to be released into the US food supply. Bloomberg News reported on USDA’s investigation and decision-making process:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it is keeping as many as 20 million chickens from slaughter this weekend as officials investigate whether the birds were given tainted feed.
The chickens are in several states on farms contracted to “large commercial operators,” USDA spokesman Keith Williams said today in a phone interview. The chickens are being voluntarily held until at least May 7 while the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency decide whether they are safe for eating.
The chickens received feed believed to be tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical that has been found in wheat gluten imported from China, Williams said. The contaminated feed has been connected to the deaths of at least 14 pets and caused the quarantine of hog farms in six U.S. states this year.
Pet food contaminatin and the FDA’s creation of a new position – assistant commissioner for food protection, or what has been dubbed "Food Safety Czar," have both been widely discussed in food safety circles, as well as on editorial pages of newspapers like the New York Times and the Seattle Times.
In today’s New York Times, the editorial board focuses on pet food contamination and the need for government action to ensure the safety of imported food:
As the global trade in foodstuffs expands, the Food and Drug Administration must be given more legal authority, money and inspectors to ensure the safety of imported foods. It would be even more tragic if the next episode were to kill thousands of people before being detected and contained.
It now looks as if two Chinese companies sold wheat gluten and rice protein spiked with an industrial chemical, melamine. Their apparent goal was to cut costs. Last week the F.D.A. rushed to upgrade its food safety programs, creating a new position — assistant commissioner for food protection — and naming a respected scientist to fill it. That should focus needed attention on a subject that often seems secondary in an agency straining to regulate drugs and medical devices. But not much will change until Congress provides money and legal authority to police foreign producers.
The Seattle Times editorial board focused more on the Food Safety Czar and on upcoming legislation:
This week, the FDA established a new position — assistant commissioner for food protection. The first task for David Acheson, a physician who has researched food-borne pathogens extensively, is crafting a strategy to ensure food safety and defend the food system from people who would deliberately try to compromise it.
The U.S. Senate also this week approved a provision by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to strengthen the food-safety system. The amendment to a Food and Drug Administration reauthorization bill would establish an early-notification system for food problems, increase inspections of foreign imports and create a database to help spot patterns needing investigation.
Imports aren’t the only challenge. During the past year, hundreds of people were sickened by salmonella in peanut butter and by E. coli in organic spinach. At least five people died between the two cases. A surveillance system might have noticed earlier the pattern of problems in the Central California area where the spinach was produced.
Senator Durbin has also introduced the Safe Food Act of 2007, which is the focus of a blog post at The Ethicurean, where it is stated that:
The Safe Food Act calls for the creation of a single cabinet-level Food Safety Administration with a singular mission: safe food. The bill aims to increase the frequency of inspections of food processing plants, create a method to trace food ingredients to their points of origin, and to step up monitoring of food imports. Unlike the current FDA, the administration will have the power to order mandatory recalls of unsafe foods.
More food safety discussions are occuring across the country. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked its readers whether they wash fruits and vegetables before eating them. Answers to the question have been posted on the AJC Web site. The LA Times reported on Los Angeles County’s attempt at requiring food handlers to be vaccinated against hepatitis A, pointing out that, "The county cannot legally require food workers to be vaccinated against hepatitis A," but noting that the state of California has the legal authority to put such a requirement in place. And the Bioblog posted recently about the debate over whether grass-fed beef produce E. coli.