WASHINGTON -- As Americans have come to expect year-round supplies of cheap food, the system for ensuring food safety increasingly depends on the vigilance of importers and foreign governments -- a problem highlighted by the contamination of pet food by an industrial chemical from China, experts say.
Imports have soared, but the food safety system has not been similarly adjusted. The government has a disproportionate number of inspectors checking meat in the United States, even as Americans eat increasing amounts of fresh vegetables and frozen seafood from abroad every year.
The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to ensure the safety of most of the food that enters the United States. But imports of food subject to FDA regulation have increased fivefold since 1997, and the agency has not been able to keep up, say former government officials, industry representatives and food safety scholars.
Today, because of budget cuts, the agency is able to check only a tiny fraction of the 20 million imported products it is responsible for monitoring each year.
The FDA can inspect overseas plants, but it rarely has the money or staff to do so, say former officials and food safety scholars. Instead, the agency relies on spot checks at ports like Baltimore's. Nationwide, its inspectors review just 1 percent of shipments.
The FDA carries out fewer than 8,000 food inspections a year -- down from 35,000 in the 1970s. And despite heightened concerns about bioterrorism, the number of FDA inspectors is no higher than it was on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's not the kind of protection that consumers want," said William K. Hubbard, a former FDA assistant commissioner who is leading a group of industry, medical and consumer groups seeking more agency funding. "I think people believe government needs to be protecting the food supply, not foreign suppliers."
Investigators suspect that Chinese firms added melamine, a plastic derivative not approved for use in food, to boost the price of wheat gluten that pet food makers use to thicken products. Investigators say they believe the chemical caused the deaths of at least 16 pets and the recall of more than 60 million products.
The scare has fed fears about the security of the American food supply -- not only for pets, but for people too -- and raised questions about the effectiveness of the government's safety system, especially now that consumers get more food from abroad.
The government is unable to trace the origin of "the products that make us the sickest and send thousands to the hospital every year," said Donna Rosenbaum, a founder of Safe Tables Our Priority, an advocacy group based in Silver Spring.
Adulteration overseas of a key pet food ingredient could easily have happened to a product for human consumption, say former government officials and food safety scholars.
The FDA has far fewer food inspectors and less regulatory authority than the Agriculture Department, which monitors meat and poultry. The disparity in the size and powers of the two agencies dates to the early 1900s, when beef consumption -- and contamination problems -- predominated.
Tight funding has left the FDA unable to check imports and prevent contamination as it should, say former FDA officials, industry representatives and scholars.
"They're just keeping their noses above water all the time," said Susan M. Stout, vice president of federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association.
She said members of the trade association, which include leading food companies, asked the FDA to step up efforts to combat contamination, only to be told that the agency doesn't have the money.
Because of these constraints, the FDA has tried to focus on the riskiest imports -- shipments from companies or countries that persistently fail inspections or on problem foods.
Last month, the agency barred imports of chocolate-covered marzipan from Mexico, frozen mahi-mahi from Vietnam and couscous from Ivory Coast, according to FDA records.
Reasons for the actions included high pesticide levels, improper labeling, salmonella contamination and decomposing ingredients.
The FDA has also tried to assure the safety of food imports by working with other governments. It has crafted agreements with foreign food safety officials on regular monitoring of overseas farms, plants and processors. It has also encouraged the adoption of international standards for food handling, processing and shipping.
But those efforts have faltered because of tight funding by Congress. Over the past four years, the FDA's food safety budget has not kept up with inflation, according to agency figures.
"Under the Bush administration, the FDA has been underfunded, and we're starting to see the effects of that," said Mark Mansour, a lawyer in Washington who represents food companies.
Former FDA officials, industry representatives and food safety scholars say agency staff members don't have as much money to travel overseas and work with foreign counterparts as they used to.
Nor are there enough inspectors, now fewer than 3,500 nationwide, to monitor every food shipment that poses a high risk.
"This shifts a lot of responsibility to private" companies and foreign governments, said Helen H. Jensen, a food safety expert at Iowa State University. American companies can help ensure the quality of food they buy overseas by imposing tough safety provisions on their suppliers, Jensen said.
Still, she added, a robust food safety system requires more active involvement by the FDA.
A case in point: wheat gluten, the pet food-thickening agent whose contamination with melamine is suspected in the pet deaths.
The adulteration of a related product, rice protein that originated in China, is now threatening to taint the human food supply. Farms in seven states may have fed it to as many as 6,000 hogs, and investigators are trying to determine whether a Missouri poultry farm also used the adulterated rice protein.
China has become a leading food supplier of everything from apple juice to tilapia. Agricultural shipments to the United States more than tripled since 1997, to $2.3 billion last year.
But Chinese imports have a history of safety problems. Inspectors have found high levels of pesticides, microbial contamination and other safety issues, according to a U.S. government report.
China has made progress strengthening its regulatory system, according to the report, which the Agriculture Department issued last November. Yet Chinese enforcement still suffers. The country has 200 million farm households and millions of small traders that need to be brought up to international standards at the same time that Chinese officials are pushing for more exports.
"Implementing a 21st-century food safety system in China poses a challenge," the report said.
Last month, the FDA refused 215 shipments from China, more than from any other country except India.
ChemNutra Inc., a Las Vegas importer of Chinese foods, didn't have problems until it began buying wheat gluten last fall, Stephen S. Miller, its chief executive, told Congress last week.
He said a reliable trading company had recommended the supplier, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd.
Miller said ChemNutra didn't test the wheat gluten shipments. "There was no known issue to test for," he said.
Menu Foods, a Canadian firm that makes 3.2 million containers of pet food under various brands every day, bought ChemNutra's imported wheat gluten. North America doesn't produce enough wheat gluten, so 75 percent of supplies come from abroad, Miller said.
Menu Foods tests wheat gluten for toxins but didn't think to look for melamine because it had never been a problem, the company's chief executive, Paul K. Henderson, told said in a congressional hearing. During its 36 years, Menu Foods never had a problem until last month, when cats and dogs began experiencing kidney failure, Henderson said.
It has since sued ChemNutra.
ChemNutra's hiring of Xuzhou, experts said, illustrated the problem of relying on the private sector to police food.
"Small companies may not do as much quality assurance," said Edward C. Mather, deputy director of Michigan State University's Food Safety and Toxicology Center.
The pet food scare, along with recent bacterial outbreaks in bagged spinach, Taco Bell lettuce and Peter Pan peanut butter, has triggered a spirited debate over solutions.
Some members of Congress want to consolidate food safety in a single agency and give the FDA power to order recalls.
Industry officials, who say that the FDA already has enough authority but lacks the resources to exercise it, are lobbying to increase the agency's budget.
Some food companies are also looking at changes the government made to meat safety after an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993 killed four children and sickened hundreds of others.
It ordered the industry to identify safety gaps in meat production and take steps to reduce the risk of contamination. The government also toughened its own testing program. Bacterial contamination in meat fell.
According to a USDA spokesman, positive tests for E. Coli contamination in ground beef dropped 80 percent from 2000 to 2006, to 0.17 percent.