FOOD CHAIN GAMES.

FOOD CHAIN GAMES. The FDA is planning a decisive response to the recent worries about tainted foodstuffs: It's going to get rid of seven of the current thirteen FDA laboratories, including the only one that specializes in detecting radioactive elements in food. Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach defends the move as a way to bring the FDA laboratories into the 21st century. Perhaps, but surely this particular announcement was very badly timed, given news like this:

Even when products are flagged by the FDA, importers have learned to manipulate the system, investigators said. For example, the FDA relies on results obtained from private labs, but those labs produce results driven by financial rather than scientific concerns, investigators told the subcommittee.

Investigative counsel Kevin Barstow said he was told by an unnamed FDA deputy lab director that "none of the test results he's seen are completely accurate."

"The words he used were 'not good' and 'spooky,'" Barstow said.

Importers also can reduce the level of scrutiny by having their products test negative five consecutive times, according to the investigators. Since some large fish, including tuna, can be flagged for high mercury levels, importers will arrange to have five lots of smaller fish -- generally younger and with comparatively less mercury -- tested to obtain an all-clear from the FDA. Once the monitoring decreases, the importers can then resume bringing in larger fish that otherwise might not pass muster, the investigators said.

"You're saying the importers know how to maneuver around the FDA?" asked Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

"Yes," said committee senior investigator David Nelson.

Some potentially problematic seafood imports are being steered to enter the country in Las Vegas to avoid the scrutiny they might receive in San Francisco and other West Coast seaports, according to Nelson and other investigators.

The problems go beyond food. In Puerto Rico, investigators learned importers were getting around the FDA's blocking of imports of Chinese-made toothpaste made with an antifreeze ingredient by co-packaging them with toothbrushes. Examples of the tainted toothpaste included a Crest knockoff called "Crust," he added.

How many games can you count so far? I see at least two, the first one being the media game and the second one the game the importers play. There is at least one more game in all this, the game of FDA bonuses:

The FDA's granting of bonuses, some worth tens of thousands of dollars, also came into question Tuesday. In 2002, the agency gave out just $3.2 million in bonuses worth $5,000 or more. That grew to $9.5 million last year - roughly the same as the additional money the agency is dedicating to food safety.

And what is the meta-game behind all these games playing with the food we eat and feed our children? My bet would be the Republican game of making sure that the government can't work efficiently.

--J. Goodrich

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