WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators believe they have now traced all of the sources of contaminated food supplies from China, according to the nation's new food safety czar, who said yesterday that the U.S. government needs to move in new directions to protect food supplies.
Despite publicity about tainted shipments from overseas, Dr. David W.K. Acheson said Americans shouldn't fear eating imported foods.
"Consumers should be reassured that the international situation is under control," he said in an interview. "We're now getting on with this proactive strategy."
Acheson, who was named this week to the newly created post of assistant FDA commissioner for food protection, said investigators have made significant progress in tracing the tainted ingredient from China that is believed to have killed cats and dogs in this country and entered other animal feed products.
He said that Americans should not worry about serving pet food to their dogs and cats. Over the past seven weeks, the contamination prompted the recall of 150 brands of pet food, forced the quarantine of more than 100,000 hogs and chickens that may have been fed tainted feed and prompted the Chinese to detain one food company's executive.
Acheson said he has begun developing new plans for protecting the nation's food supply from contamination, either through commercial transactions or terrorist acts.
He said the FDA needs more sophisticated computer systems and, perhaps, additional scientists to identify foods that might be at risk for contamination and in need of stricter inspection.
He said he is also studying whether the FDA needs to ask Congress for expanded legal authority, new regulations and more inspectors - potential changes that lawmakers are already considering.
"Globalization of food is here. It's here to stay. We need to acknowledge that and make sure food coming to the United States is as safe as we can make it," Acheson said in a telephone interview, one of the first he has conducted since taking on the new post on Tuesday.
Investigators suspect that Chinese suppliers of two pet food ingredients, wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate, spiked them with melamine in order to boost their value. Investigators also believe that the industrial chemical, not approved for use in food, killed at least 16 pets by working in combination with melamine-related compounds.
Acheson said the search for the pet food contaminant is "virtually closed" and investigators have a "very good handle" on its distribution. Government officials say the threat to humans is extremely low.
Inspectors are redirecting their efforts into checking all vegetable protein shipments from China and visiting American importers to test ingredients and make sure the firms know who made them.
Acheson said hiring more inspectors might help prevent future scares, but the FDA will never have enough manpower to examine all food supplied by 150,000 registered food makers from abroad.
"Right now, we inspect 1 percent of food imports. If we were to inspect 2 percent, would that problem go away? I don't think so," he said.
The government attempts to target the riskiest foods for close monitoring, but the failure to identify wheat gluten for attention suggests that more needs to be done to find the right targets, Acheson said.
That means the government has to look at more than a product's history of safety problems or the fact that it is uncooked. Doing so, he added, would require more computer analysis of the government's registry of foreign companies and food testing laboratories.
"We need to find optimal ways to integrate all that information. It gets looked at, but it doesn't get looked at as effectively as it could," Acheson said.
Acheson said the FDA wasn't planning to establish a database for collecting reports of injuries to pets, a demand of pet owners that Acheson said veterinarians are considering.
He also questioned whether it would be beneficial to create a system for monitoring the safety of fresh vegetables, similar to one that ground beef producers established after an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993.
Instead, he said, more research is needed to identify points in the food production cycle where contamination is most likely to occur. Then, methods could be developed to prevent problems from arising.
Industry representatives and others have criticized cutbacks in the number of FDA scientists and have called for more spending on food-safety research.
William K. Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, said the agency's proposals in 1997 and 2002 to improve risk identification and conduct more research faltered for lack of money.
"I just don't see how you make progress without more resources," said Hubbard, who is leading a coalition of industry, medical and consumer groups that wants Congress to provide more money for the FDA.
Acheson, who was the chief medical officer at the FDA's food safety center until he took on his new post, is an expert in food-borne pathogens, particularly E. coli. In 2001, he moved his laboratory to the University of Maryland medical school from Tufts University because, he explained, he wanted to make sure his research had a real-world impact. He said it was difficult to work with the Department of Agriculture in Washington while living in Boston.
In 2002, he became the FDA food safety center's chief medical officer.