PALLONE STATEMENT AT OVERSIGHT HEARING ON FOOD SAFETY
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, issued the following statement at an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing entitled "Diminished Capacity: Can the FDA Assure the Safety and Security of the Nation's Food Supply?" Chairman Pallone announced his intentions to introduce legislation that would plug the gaps in our system of pet food regulation and data collection that need to be corrected in order to ensure a safer pet food supply.
"Thank you for the opportunity to express my concerns regarding pet food safety at this Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing. I would also like to thank the subcommittee for inviting as a witness, my friend, Dr. Anthony DeCarlo, whose Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey, provides services to the pets of thousands of my constituents every year. Dr. DeCarlo's first-hand experience and esteemed reputation in the veterinary medicine community make him an excellent and authoritative voice on this most serious subject.
"While the safety and security of the nation's overall human food supply is paramount, I intend to address that in more depth at another time. Today my purpose is to welcome Dr. DeCarlo to the hearing and to highlight my concerns and recommendations on the recent and widespread contamination of pet food.
"An important conclusion that can be drawn from this crisis is that a centralized reporting and tracking system could have saved many pet lives and avoided thousands of related cases of kidney ailments. The inordinate delay from the first report of a food-related pet death to the actual recalls and media coverage, meant that consumers continued to purchase the contaminated food and feed it to their dogs and cats. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of animals died unnecessarily. Owners paid precious dollars for medical treatments and many are still suffering from the loss of their pet, who for many may truly be their best friend.
"How could an existing central registry and reporting system make a difference? The president of the Pet Food Institute, which represents the industry, said recently that if the Food and Drug Administration had been able to determine earlier on the harmful ingredient and been able to share that information sooner, the industry could have used their shipping information and lot numbers to improve the response and the recalls.
"How could FDA have determined sooner the harmful ingredient? If manufacturers were required to report adverse events immediately to a central regulatory registry, rather than wait for the results of their own company testing, FDA could more quickly investigate, test and ultimately withdraw the harmful products from the market. Precious, time-saving information could be shared with other companies who are perhaps getting similar complaints from their own consumers.
"In the case of Menu Foods, at least one month passed from the time the company got its first report of a pet's death from an owner to the date of the first recall. In the meantime, consumers kept purchasing the pet foods. The supplier of the wheat gluten did not even know it had supplied the tainted product. Had that time frame been shortened and public notification expedited, animal lives would have been saved. Veterinarians would have known to examine their pets for toxic exposure. Vets could also have been asked a set of questions to ensure accurate reporting and been provided with a recommended protocol. With earlier warning, both vets and owners would have retained labels and other factual information to improve documentation and analysis of the crisis.
"The question of which agency is best suited to the regulatory oversight of a centralized registry requires further assessment. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has an excellent surveillance and reporting system in place for humans. It determines a confirmed case of a specific disease and quickly warns the public, but there is no CDC for animals. The Food and Drug Administration has the structure in place for reporting of adverse reactions to foods and drugs and is responsible for inspections and labeling, so that is a prime candidate.
"Other areas that need to be addressed include the inspection and labeling of pet food products. On what scientific basis are nutritional claims based? While product testing does take place in order to earn the "AAFCO" (American Association of Feed Control Officials) stamp, experts say it may not be long enough or rigorous enough to ensure that long-term consumption of the product is safe. Labeling does not list the source of the ingredients, nor is there testing of the ingredients on an individual basis.
"Another question to be answered is how to improve the recall itself. Should the notification of the contamination and the recall of the product continue to be the responsibility of the company? Might this system result in some less reputable manufacturers choosing to protect their profits over the safety of the public?
"Finally, a huge and daunting challenge exists to ensure that food imports from foreign countries receive the level of scrutiny they demand. This includes our own government inspections upon entry as well as guarantees from the suppliers that their products and ingredients have been tested and are safe. Foreign countries must cooperate and tighten the inspection of foods originating within their borders. Those that refuse must be held accountable and denied entry into our markets.
"As the chairman of the Health Subcommittee, I intend to introduce legislation that would plug the gaps in our system of pet food regulation and data collection that need to be corrected in order to ensure a safer pet food supply. We must improve communication and expedite the government's response in any future crises. We should move in the direction of making regulatory oversight, surveillance and reporting related to the pet food similar to that which currently exists for the human food supply. And, when it comes to importation of foreign foods and ingredients, we need to tighten the rules to protect both humans and animals from unsafe foods and ingredients."