A level wheat field

May 06, 2007

It doesn't really make sense that the United States, the world's premier wheat-growing nation, should be importing wheat gluten from China. But after American quotas on wheat gluten were removed in 2000, the price fell by half and imports poured in. U.S. producers can't compete; the surviving domestic firms are able to supply only about 20 percent of the demand.

Now it turns out that one way two Chinese firms were able to sell their gluten so cheaply was by adulterating it with melamine and perhaps other industrial chemicals. As a result, up to 4,000 dogs and cats in the U.S. have fallen ill or died, and contaminated feed has been given to at least several thousand hogs and chickens. The Food and Drug Administration believes the threat to human health is minimal - but there's still something wrong with this picture.

The development of a truly national food supply system in this country over the past generation has brought lower prices and made better nutrition possible - especially in winter - but it has also made outbreaks of food-borne illness a national, rather than a contained and local, problem. The food inspection agencies in this country have proved themselves to be inadequately prepared to meet this challenge. The recent scares over peanut butter and fresh spinach have been testament to that. But now the food industry is going global, and that just compounds the headaches.

There are a few bright spots: Pressure from U.S. companies has led to significantly better sanitary conditions in Mexican agriculture, for instance. But it's not enough to hold back the tide.

Just last week, Alabama and Mississippi banned Chinese catfish when they found samples laden with antibiotics that are illegal in this country. (Those states, not coincidentally, are also home to domestic catfish farms, which have been hard-pressed by competition from imports.) Other foods - from Africa, Asia and Latin America, contaminated with pesticides or salmonella, or mislabeled, or rotting - have been turned away by federal inspectors. What's unknown is how much else gets through.

America must overhaul and strengthen its food inspection programs - and put them in one agency. Fair competition from foreign producers is generally good for the consumer, but unscrupulous outfits, wherever they may be, don't deserve a place at the national table.

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