The FDA is creating an internal science and policy workgroup to keep a critical eye on the international food supply.

by Emily P. Walker, Washington Correspondent, MedPage Today 

GAITHERSBURG, Md., Oct. 31 — Pointing to the hazards of melamine-containing products from China, the FDA said today it is creating an internal science and policy workgroup to keep a critical eye on the international food supply.

Detecting contamination in the increasingly international food supply is “a necessary job of the FDA,” said Randall Lutter, Ph.D., the agency’s deputy commissioner for policy, at a meeting of the agency’s science board.

And after the melamine contaminations from China — first in pet food last year, and more recently in milk — it is vital to develop a strategy for identifying and preventing potential illnesses, he said. (See: FDA Finds Melamine in Asian Milk Drinks)

The workgroup will have the assignment of pinpointing companies that appear to be at a high risk for contaminating the food supply with chemicals.

“There is a fundamental need for us to understand better the economic incentives and cultural norms in other countries,” said Dr. Lutter. This, he added, means recognizing when spiking the food supply with chemicals is likely when it means enough extra profit for a manufacturer so that it offsets any potential penalties.

During the recent melamine outbreak, FDA officials suspect that melamine may have been added to infant formula to inflate protein levels cheaply.

In some sectors of the food industry in China, manufacturers are paid by the amount of protein in a product. Melamine costs about $1.20 per each protein count per ton, while legitimate protein costs about $6 per protein count per ton.

Melamine, which is used in some pharmaceuticals, dyes, glues and plastics, is normally not harmful to humans, but when it commingles with cyanuric acid, it becomes insoluble and can cause kidney failure.

“The suggestion is that some clever scientist used a high-quality melamine that did not have cyanuric acid,” said Dr. Lutter. “It was only later that the melamine was commingled with the cyanuric acid.”

But “forecasting economic infiltration is hard,” Dr. Lutter said, and food coming across U.S. borders is shipped from countries with disparate regulatory requirements.

The United States virtually eliminated problem of economically motivated contamination of food produced in its own borders, largely through the creation of the FDA, Dr. Lutter said.

“It’s an old problem, but fortunately it was successfully remedied during the early part of the 20th Century,” he said.

But then came globalization of the food market.

“It’s a symbol that the world we lived in changed, and there is a new vulnerability,” Dr. Lutter said.

President Bush signed an executive order last year to establish a task force that recently issued an import safety action plan, Dr. Lutter said.

Dr. Lutter declined to comment on the specifics of the workgroup, but said it will consist of FDA employees. It is unclear whether the workgroup will also monitor possible contamination of foreign drugs.


Published: October 31, 2008

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