- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The beleaguered Food and Drug Administration yesterday created a new post to defend the nation against contaminated products in the wake of safety scandals ranging from pet food to peanut butter.

The primary agency in charge of the nation’s food supply is taking the first proactive step since the food safety crisis began by naming David Acheson as the first assistant commissioner for food protection, the FDA announced yesterday.

Dr. Acheson will “provide advice and counsel to [FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach] on strategic and substantive food safety and food defense matters,” the agency said.

He currently is chief medical officer and director of the FDA’s Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response.

The announcement is the first step the agency has taken since the food safety crisis began last summer when E. coli bacteria was found in bagged spinach in 21 states. The incident was followed by a salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan peanut butter, and problems have carried over into this year when it was discovered pet food contained a dangerous chemical that now could find its way into human food.

While thousands of FDA employees already are tracking food safety, the new position will report directly to Dr. von Eschenbach, meaning food safety will become a more important issue at the agency, an FDA spokesman said.

“The creation of this position elevates the importance of food safety at the FDA,” said the spokesman.

Elisa Odabashian, director of Consumers Union’s West Coast office, said that while Dr. Acheson is a “credible” person and a solid appointment, the agency is too underfunded and undermanned for him to make a significant difference.

“I’m skeptical,” she said. “This agency needs a massive infusion of money, manpower and political will to turn things around.”

Federal records show that in 2006, the FDA conducted just half the inspections of U.S. food manufacturing facilities that it did three years earlier, and 75 percent fewer safety tests of U.S.-produced food.

A year ago, former FDA official William Hubbard said the FDA’s budget has remained essentially flat while major new responsibilities have been piled on, resulting in a serious weakening of the agency. Mr. Hubbard said that the FDA’s food inspections dropped from 50,000 in 1972 to about 5,000 in 2006, a 90 percent reduction.

“U.S. food processors are inspected on average about every 10 years,” Mr. Hubbard said one year ago. “The chance of a food product from overseas being inspected is infinitesimal.”

Products containing melamine, a lethal chemical found in pet foods imported from China, were originally limited to dogs and cats but recently expanded to hogs. The FDA announced yesterday that 38 poultry feed farms in Indiana supplied melamine-contaminated food to chickens. However, the FDA predicts human consumption will not cause illness.

Melamine was included in the pet food to boost the product’s protein content. The chemical, which is 60 percent nitrogen and has no nutritional value, is an inexpensive additive produced from boiled coal. When testing for protein levels, manufacturers calculate the amount of nitrogen.

“As with exposure from hogs fed contaminated pet food and for similar reasons related to the dilution of the contamination, FDA and USDA believe the likelihood of illness after eating chicken fed the contaminated product is very low,” the FDA said. “Because there is no evidence of harm to humans associated with consumption of chicken fed the contaminated product, no recall of poultry products processed from these animals is being issued.”

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