Incidents of product contamination increasing

By Traci DiPietro
Staff Writer
Posted 5/28/07

FAIRHOPE — First it was spinach tainted with E. coli. Then it was peanut butter products tainted with salmonella, both incidents of widespread microbial outbreaks arising from unintentional contamination.

Shortly after, products containing …

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Incidents of product contamination increasing


FAIRHOPE — First it was spinach tainted with E. coli. Then it was peanut butter products tainted with salmonella, both incidents of widespread microbial outbreaks arising from unintentional contamination.

Shortly after, products containing melamine poisoned thousands of house pets across the USA. Feed intended for poultry and swine was also contaminated.

Now at least three countries claim to have have discovered dental products containing the lethal chemical diethylene glycol (DEG). Both the melamine and the DEG have been traced back to China, where many of our foods items are processed.

Why are these incidents happening?

Reports show that cost-cutting, substandard manufacturing practices and imported food products — which often change hands a number of times — are contributing factors to the growing contamination problem, but recent incidents and outbreaks appear to have been intentional.

Doug Arbesfeld, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said the DEG poisoning is not new to the FDA. The compound, used in the manufacturing of engine coolants and acrylic polymers, is less expensive than glycerin, and is sometimes used as a substitute (glycerin is a common, inert ingredient used in the manufacturing of soaps, medicines and hand cream).

In 1937, more than 100 people died in an incident now known as the “Elixir Sulfanilamide Incident,” after doctors prescribed sulfanilamide to treat streptococcal infections. Unbeknownst to physicians, the sulfanilamide contained the toxic DEG.

The event resulted in the final enactment of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.

In 2006, DEG reared its head again. This time the source of the contamination was found to be the Taixing Glycerin Factory; a Chinese company in Hengxiang that sold DEG under the label “pharmaceutical grade glycerin.” The poison wound up in Panama, where it was incorporated into more than 200,000 bottles of cold medicine.

The contaminated dental products have not reached the United States, according to reports from the FDA.

Lola S. Russell, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said her agency has not received any information related to the dental product incident.

Since the Panama incident, the FDA has issued an “industry guidance document” outlining testing procedures for the use of glycerin, in an effort to head off known contaminated products slated for distribution in the U.S. Additionally, the federal government has increased the authority of the FDA.

“The Bioterrorism Act gave authority to the FDA at the borders in terms of registration, traceability and notification,” said an FDA spokesperson. “There are mechanisms of control in place.”

Arbesfeld said the FDA had a system in place to prevent the contaminated dental products from entering the U.S. market a few days after they became aware of the problem.

A number of U.S. lawmakers are concerned that FDA does not have enough control or manpower to protect the U.S. from terrorists that could target our food supply, and that changes need to be made in the way we deal with China.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. have all voiced concerns related to food contamination issues.

In the case of the pet food poisoning, Chinese authorities delayed plant inspections and refused to allow U.S. officials to inspect the interior of factories accused of using the melamine, but Chinese officials did allow inspectors to see plants that were no longer in operation, said Arbesfeld.

When asked if he was satisfied with the way the Chinese government handled the situation, he said it appeared the government had handled the matter themselves, just as the U.S. would have done.

“We have to respect the culture of these people,” said Arbesfield. “By the time we got there, the authorities had closed the plants down and sealed them.”

When asked if he believed that repeated cases of contamination meant that China was becoming a threat, he said the problems lied with greedy manufacturers, but that the government wanted to cooperate.

“The Chinese want to have good trade relations with us,” he said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in a letter to FDA commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, recommended the FDA evaluate whether a ban is needed for food-related items coming from China.

“… We urge the FDA to heed the warning and take action now to ban grains and other grain products until the Chinese government and producers can guarantee that these imports are free of illegal and dangerous substances,” wrote CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson and CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal.

Closing the borders to food imports is a serious action, but one deemed necessary by CSPI. The FDA inspection staff has shrunk by 15 percent since 2003 and it does not have programs in place to ensure that exporting countries maintain safety systems equivalent to those in the U.S.

Arbesfield said it is his view that both the melamine and the DEG poisonings were crimes of economic opportunity, and did not appear to present any type of bioterrorism threat.

Foodborn illnesses are a regular occurrence

in the USA.

The FDA reports that it has detected and identified more than 250 food-borne diseases, and the CDC estimates there are 400-500 outbreaks of food-borne diseases in the U.S. each year. The Government Accountability Office reports there are an average of 5,000 food-borne illness deaths each year.

Most can be prevented with a few simple precautions, such as cooking meat, poultry and eggs, chilling leftovers immediately and thoroughly cleaning produce and items that come in contact with raw meat or poultry products. However, the peanut butter and pet food contamination could not have been avoided through these measures.

“Our country has very little control over manufacturing processes in ‘closed’ countries such as China,” Arbesfeld said. “We rely on intelligence, information provided by cooperative government officials and the inspection and testing of imported goods.”

According to information provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — the government agency charged with protecting our food supplys, a number of systems are in place at the federal level to monitor, prevent and respond to an event of bioterrorism.

The CDC, a primary organization in bioterrorism detection, operates a high-tech watch system called BioSense, implemented in 2003. The system rapidly scans information from medical facilities and pharmacies, compiling and recording information on sudden increases of symptoms in any given area throughout the U.S.

In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) created the Global Outbreak Alert, a mechanism to identify, verify and respond to public health emergencies. WHO uses the Global Public Health Information System to trawl the World Wide Web for information, searching areas such as discussion rooms and news wires for any indication or implication of threat.

The HHS reports that CDC, WHO and the FDC work together with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government agencies to prepare for rapid detection and response to any type of bioterrorism threat.

Closer to home

At the state level, intentionally contaminated interstate items are handled by the Center for Emergency Preparedness where highly trained epidemiologists conduct investigations of suspected or confirmed health threats.

The Alabama State Department of Public Health works with the CDC, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Food & Safety Division and the CEP to detect and respond to threats to our local food supply, but it was difficult to determine which state agency would oversee a local case of contamination of items not intended for human ingestion, such as toothpaste.

Representatives from various state agencies contacted for this article said they were not sure who was responsible. The department of health said this type of threat might be investigated by either the FDA or the Alabama Department of Agriculture.