2.22.2010

Is the US’s Food and Pharma Safety Net Unraveling?

Back when preparations for the Olympics were still coming together, athlete handlers bought half a chicken breast in a Chinese market that measured 14 inches. Talk about a world record right there! After testing it, it was found so full of steroids that they never could have given it to the athletes because they all would have tested positive.

Was that an isolated event? Hardly. We’re probably all familiar with recall scares due to E-Coli bacteria in hamburger meat, spinach, and peanut butter. Did you also hear about the melamine in Chinese sourced infant formula and dog food? What about the coolant in imported toothpaste? As a consumer, these sorts of headlines are jarring to say the least, and they’re the stuff that gets consumer packaged goods industry in hot water with the government.

Each year, approximately $2 trillion worth of products enter the United States from more than 150 countries. That’s the benefit of being an open economy and having good trading relationships with most nations. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates a large number of these products and is responsible for ensuring that they meet US standards for safety and quality.

Apparently their processes don’t always work or we wouldn’t have to worry about our toothpaste and infant formula. We’re not feeling safe anymore, and the FDA’s hearing about it. This is why they began their Beyond Our Borders program about two years ago. It’s still a new program, but there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

So far, the FDA has enacted over 100 formal agreements with its counterparts in 29 countries—18 with the European Union members and two with the World Health Organization. To further reinforce their commitment to improving standards worldwide, the FDA also opened offices in China and India.

But why are we still relying on outsourcing when it’s becoming obvious the cost of maintaining standards is canceling out any bottom line benefits from the lower manufacturing costs? If our guidelines and their production standards are irreconcilable, why not just bring back manufacturing to our continent?

More importantly, what is all this going to cost Joe tax-payer back in the US? Will the US government provide subsidies to companies implementing safety programs with their manufacturers?

Now, obviously, it’s not just the government getting a wake-up call. Companies are snapping to attention too. Cargill, for example, a multinational corporation headquartered out of Minnesota, has been providing Chinese government officials, academics, and business leaders a two-week food safety-training program to expand their expertise and knowledge in food safety management.

If people think it's a bore to continuously hear the "wash your hands with warm, soapy water" message, or running into hand sanitizer at every corner, imagine what these workers, factory owners, and business people are hearing about. What do you imagine it feels like when we tell them what to do and how to do it in order to continue doing business?

I’m not sure we have any assurance that the full steam of these new programs won’t fizzle at the first sign of friction. But more importantly, will these efforts help us avoid coolant in the toothpaste or lead paint on our toys? All these programs are a considerable investment of resources and effort, just so that we can keep poison out of our daily comforts of living. It’s possible the US is approaching an unprecedented, new era in collaboration with our trade partners, but don’t stick a fork in it yet. I for one, am going to stock up on Tums and activated charcoal…sounds like this lunar year is going to be all about the crouching ulcer, sleeping poison.