11/1/2008online: 11/1/2008

Better food-safety alert system urged

November 4, 2008

Source of Article:  http://www.newsday.com/business/ny-bzreca045911300nov04,0,6591387.story

 

Richard Lin, manager of the Warehouse Food Outlet in Hicksville, seemed shocked to learn recently that he had cookies on his shelves that had been on the Food and Drug Administration's recall list for almost two weeks because of possible melamine contamination.

Vowing to remove the Koala's March cookies, Lin admitted that he needed to figure out how to check the Internet for recalled items.

Lin's lack of critical information is just one example that the country's food-safety alert system needs to be upgraded, consumer groups and some in Congress have said.

"I need to learn how to reach these Web sites," Lin said. "I know there are lots of entries to reach that area. ... If the USDA and FDA tell us, that would be better. It takes time and I don't know where [the Web site] is."

When ingested by humans, melamine - which is used in plastics and fertilizers - can cause kidney stones as the body tries to eliminate it, and in extreme cases can lead to kidney failure. Babies are particularly vulnerable.

The FDA said it canvassed about 2,100 Asian markets nationwide. The state Department of Agriculture and Markets inspectors assisted the FDA and visited more than 200 Asian supermarkets in September and October, making sure items on a list of possibly melamine-contaminated products from China were removed from store shelves. Despite the effort to alert food retailers, consumer watchdog groups said cracks remain in the system.

"In the case of imports they need to have a system in place that they can really monitor food safety systems of countries that export to the U.S. And China's, at best, is weak, and at worst is a corrupt food safety system," said Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch, a consumer protection group in Washington, D.C.

The recent scandal of melamine-tainted milk products in China prompted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to write FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach.

"It is essential that you broaden your efforts beyond outreach to state and local health departments and work with communities directly - especially those that are frequent consumers of these imported milk products - and let them know how to keep themselves safe," Clinton wrote in an Oct. 22 letter.

Both the FDA and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets said they have made efforts to regularly educate and inform various communities. Still, it is widely acknowledged that the federal food-safety system needs to be restructured. At congressional hearings this year, health experts and representatives of the Government Accountability Office expressed concern that FDA staffing levels and funding had failed to keep pace with the significant growth of domestic and foreign operations falling under its jurisdiction.

Judy Braiman, president of the Empire State Consumer Project, a consumer protection group based in Rochester, said government agencies need to do more to alert store owners. The day after the recall of Koala's March cookies, she said she had to alert two Asian markets in Rochester that the items were still on their shelves.

"What if our group wasn't here?" Braiman asked. "Shouldn't the government be contacting these stores?"

PULLED FROM STORE SHELVES

Some recalled items that federal officials say may be contaminated with melamine. For more information, go to the Food and Drug Administration's Web site at www.fda.gov.

KOALA'S MARCH COOKIES. The cookies are distributed by Lotte USA Inc. of Battle Creek, Mich. The company recalled these cookies, which were produced in China.

WHITE RABBIT MILK CANDY. QFCO Inc. of Burlingame, Calif., recalled the candy after it was discovered that the product contained melamine.

YILI MILK DRINKS. HUA XIA Food Trade USA Inc. of Flushing recalled YILI brand sour and YILI brand pure milk drink packaged in 250- milliliter flexible paperboard boxes after FDA testing discovered that the product contained melamine.

BLUE CAT DRINKS. Tristar Food, Jersey City, N.J., recalled their 100-milliliter plastic bottles of Blue Cat Flavor Drink (Lanmao) after FDA testing discovered that the product contained melamine.

Keiko Morris

 

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