Lawmakers question FDA, USDA about food from China

Loopholes exist in country-of-origin labeling, regulators concede

Published: June 18, 2014
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News Service screen shot
Sen. Sherrod Brown put Tracey Forfa of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the spot when he pulled out a bag of dog treats and asked whether she could guarantee that it contained no ingredients from China. "I'll have to get back to you on that," she responded.

Don’t assume "Made in USA" means “Not Made in China.”

That finding, along with others, came out Tuesday during a congressional hearing led by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey. The hearing was called in response to reports that China soon might be permitted to process chicken for human consumption in America, giving rise to questions about the effectiveness of country-of-origin labeling.

Also discussed was news that two pet retail chains have promised to soon stop carrying Chinese-made jerky pet treats, which have been linked to illnesses in some 5,600 animals, mostly dogs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, continues to permit their sale in the United States, having found no scientific proof that jerky pet treats are to blame.

“We have called this hearing to seek answers for American consumers, pet owners, farmers and parents about the safety of pet treats, processed chicken and animal feed from China,” Brown stated in his introductory address. “Americans want to know where their foods come from and want to be sure everything is being done to keep it safe.”

To that end, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) offered little consolation.

Daniel Engeljohn, FSIS assistant administrator for field operations, explained that Chinese manufacturers are applying for certification to export processed chicken to the United States — and the U.S. government is OK with that. Last August, USDA declared China eligible to export processed, cooked chicken to the United States after regulators affirmed that Chinese poultry processing plants are up to par in terms of food safety.

That means chicken from the United States and other countries with similar food-safety laws soon might be shipped to certified Chinese manufacturing plants for processing and, once cooked, sent back to America for human consumption. FSIS will be inspecting the chicken at various entry points in the United States.

“We are well aware of the consumer concerns regarding this matter,” Engeljohn said. “Consumers will be able to see that the product is made from China unless it’s repackaged or further processed in this country.”

He added, “Once certification is up and running, the agency does not know how much processed chicken will be imported.”

That failed to ease the minds of Brown and Smith, who questioned Engeljohn about whether consumers ultimately would know when food had been processed in China.

“I think the American public is pretty confused about what labels mean and what ‘made in the U.S.’ means,” Brown said. “Can you ever be confident that (cooked chicken) wasn’t here, then sent to China … and back to the U.S.?”

Engeljohn said that if chicken processed in China is repackaged in the United States, it could carry a "Made in USA" label. “We don’t have criteria that we use to set a basis for ‘made in the U.S.,’ " he said.

Holding up a boxed meal with a "Made in USA" label, Brown rejoined: “What does that mean? As an American … does this mean that if I buy this in the local Heinen’s in Cleveland that none of this came from China?”

No, Engeljohn said: “I don’t believe you could identify that there were no ingredients from another country." He explained that a small portion of any food item might be sourced, slaughtered or processed in a country that differs from what appears on the country-of-origin label.

“What’s the use of that kind of label then?” Brown retorted.

Smith later added, “Can we trust anything the government says?”

Tracey Forfa, deputy director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, fielded questions from lawmakers about why regulators haven’t banned Chinese-made pet treats that are widely believed to have sickened pets, even as retailers stop carrying such products.

Last month, Petco and PetSmart announced that they will stop carrying Chinese-made treats in response to consumer demands. Regulators, however, must act on scientific evidence, Forfa said.

“Unfortunately, to date, FDA has not been able to identify a specific cause for the reported illnesses and deaths despite an intensive scientific investigation,” she said. “Getting to the bottom of this problem is definitely a priority of FDA.”

Veterinarians and pet owners have questioned the safety of jerky made for pets since 2007, when animals started to become ill after eating jerky treats. The FDA has received approximately 4,800 complaints to date. The vast majority of reported illnesses and deaths involve dogs that have consumed Chinese-made jerky treats. A few cats and three humans also reportedly have been sickened.

Sixty percent of the reported adverse reactions involve gastrointestinal illnesses while some 30 percent relate to kidney or urinary issues, Forfa said. The rest deal with convulsions, tremors, hives and skin irritations.

She added that the FDA is actively investigating 125 well-documented cases. The agency has analyzed some 250 jerky treat samples connected with complaints plus 200 retail samples. Forfa described the testing for contaminants as “intensive.” FDA also tests the composition of jerky pet treats to verify that they contain only the ingredients listed on their labels.

FDA meets regularly with the Chinese Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine about the jerky issue, Forfa said. The agency also has inspected several Chinese manufacturing plants as scientists from both countries share their epidemiological findings.

“We’ve initiated a scientific collaboration with the Chinese,” Forfa asserted.

This failed to convince lawmakers that the FDA is doing all it can. Pulling out a bag of pet treats, Brown asked Forfa if she could identify whether any of the ingredients had been sourced in China.

She could not immediately provide an answer.

“Sixty-two million households in this country have a pet,” Brown lectured. “They are raising 83 million dogs and 96 million cats just like members of their family. That’s why it’s so troubling that seven years on, we still do not know what’s causing the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dogs.”

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