WASHINGTON — Bowing to growing nationwide concern, the Food and Drug Administration named a food safety czar Tuesday and pledged to develop "a visionary strategy for food safety and defense" that takes into account increasing U.S. dependence on food imports in a global economy.
The development came as the agency said its investigation of contaminated pet food ingredients from China had expanded to include feed eaten by millions of chickens that most likely already have been consumed in the U.S.
Meanwhile, a former FDA commissioner pronounced the food safety system "broken," and leading Democrats in Congress moved Tuesday to authorize federal regulators to monitor food imports more closely.
Appointed food safety czar was Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's food division, who oversaw last year's investigation into tainted spinach from California.
Though he acknowledged that the issues raised by the pet food recall were serious, Acheson said the risk to people remained low.
"We do not believe there is any significant threat to human health," Acheson said.
Although chickens were fed contaminated food, the additive used in the feed would have been diluted many times over before the birds reached dinner tables around the country, he explained.
The promise of a new food safety strategy recalls an earlier FDA effort in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to improve protection of food imports. Known as the Import Strategic Plan, it ultimately was abandoned because of tight federal budgets and a lack of official will. Currently, the FDA inspects only about 1% of food imports under its jurisdiction, which includes bulk ingredients, fresh fruits and vegetables, and many grocery items.
The safety plan also will address problems in domestic production, such as last year's E. coli outbreak linked to California-grown spinach.
Consumer advocates said they were skeptical that creating a safety czar and a new food strategy would make much difference without much more money and stronger enforcement powers for the FDA. For example, the agency cannot require foreign producers to adhere to U.S. safety standards.
Imported pet food ingredients contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics, are believed to have killed at least 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs, according to consumer reports submitted to the FDA. Veterinary experts say the toll could be as high as 7,000. More than 150 different brands of pet food have been recalled.
Some of the tainted protein concentrate in the pet food also found its way into commercial feed for hogs and chickens destined for human consumption.
"The real issue is not melamine, but the fact that this problem exposes such a huge gap in consumer protection," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "It's not this event, but the next event that people should be concerned about."
Critics of the government's food safety system received unequivocal support from a former FDA commissioner who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.
"Simply put, our food safety system in this country is broken," Dr. David Kessler told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "The fact is that food safety has been a second-tier priority within the FDA."
Kessler served under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Now the medical school dean at UC San Francisco, Kessler said responsibility for food safety is "fragmented" among three FDA branches. It is also divided between the FDA and Department of Agriculture: the USDA takes responsibility for meat and poultry, and the FDA for most other foods. Traditionally, the USDA has had a bigger budget and more expansive enforcement authority.
Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, the current FDA commissioner, took issue with Kessler.
"I disagree that the food safety system is broken," he told the panel. He added that "we will never have a 100% fail-safe" system.
Prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill are seeking broader powers and more funding for the FDA. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) want to attach an amendment to a fast-moving bill that aims to improve the FDA's drug safety system.
Durbin and DeLauro ultimately want to create a single food safety agency for the whole government, bringing together components from the FDA and USDA. Their amendment -- seen as a modest first step -- would set up a computerized reporting system for contaminants in imported products as well as an early-warning network for pet food problems.
Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, separately has asked for a $183-million increase next year in the FDA's food safety budget, bringing it to $650 million.
Prospects for the legislation are unclear, but DeLauro said she and Durbin believed the public would strongly support their efforts.