Food — where it comes from, what it contains — has become a political hot potato.

Legislators and regulators are feeling the pressure of a seemingly endless list of concerns about the safety of food for man and beast.

You need only pick up the local newspaper, read your favorite news magazine (or web site), or flip on the TV. The chorus of concerns — sometimes fanned into an uproar — is all too often met with an emphatic and emotional knee-jerk defense from “our” side trumpeting the fact that the American public has the safest food supply in the world.

It's true. We do. But, more and more, the food and/or raw materials used to produce food and diet supplements in the United States originate in less-developed countries that do not have the same, stringent regulatory protections in place.

More than Melamine

The furor surrounding melamine in wheat gluten and rice protein used to make pet foods, and the massive recalls that ensued, serves as a good example. Chinese suppliers may have added melamine, a nitrogen-rich chemical used to make plastic and fertilizer, to fake higher protein contents of the ingredients suspected of causing sickness and death in cats and dogs.

The melamine concerns put China under a microscope and raised serious questions by the USDA and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as to the country's reliability as a food source. I was shocked to read in the May 22, 2007 edition of USA Today that China grows half of the world's vegetables and 15% of the fruit. Although most (90%) are eaten by the Chinese people, they still have a lot to sell.

The country's cheap labor and government policies have encouraged growth in this area, increasing their export value to $5.1 billion (all countries) by 2004, according to USDA data cited in the article.

A sidebar story explained that more than $2.3 billion in agricultural and food products arrived in the United States from China last year. Did you know that 45% of the apple juice and 19% of the honey consumed in the United States comes from China? Me neither.

That same week, USA Today (May 21, 2007) carried an opinion piece drafted by former FDA deputy commissioner Scott Gottlieb asking: “How safe is our food? FDA could do better.”

Gottlieb challenged: “Our system for inspecting food and drug imports into the USA is woefully outdated, designed to regulate a mostly domestic industry, not to deal with a globalized world.” He says the melamine-tainted pet foods incident is merely one in string of problems traced back to raw materials, food and drug products imported from developing countries — not just China.

It's the FDA's job to inspect shipments of drugs and most foods. Gottlieb, who worked at FDA in 2005-2007, says FDA processed a staggering 15 million shipments of goods in 2006 from more than 230 countries and from more than 300,000 manufacturers. A sidebar story points out that “in fiscal year 2006, nearly nine million FDA-regulated foods entered the USA” and the FDA inspected only about 1% of them.

How do you get your arms around that 1,000-lb. gorilla — and why bring it up here?

Because food safety is top of mind for most Americans today. We're bombarded with food source concerns and they aren't likely to go away. That means it should be top of mind for politicians (or the wanna-be's) at the fundraisers, community celebrations and parades they attend this summer to advance their political aspirations. It's your job to help them understand the impact of their actions on your business.

Speak Up

I believe we are entering a new era in agriculture production and regulation. The general public is more attuned to food safety issues than ever before. I used China to help illustrate the point, but next week the issue could be mangos from Mexico, bananas from Brazil, or the use of gestation stalls in Iowa.

Foreign sourcing of foods and some of the problems we've seen could be the final incentive to enact country of origin labeling. I'm still not convinced it's worth the cost — estimated at over $10/market hog with full traceback capabilities. Perhaps that money could be better spent beefing up the USDA and FDA inspections services. Of course, traceback requires enactment of a functional animal identification program.

As the actual writing of a new farm bill draws closer and the next election draws nearer, our elected officials want to be able to tell their constituents that the actions being taken, here and abroad, will help solve some of these challenges. Be sure they consider your side to those solutions.