Video: How safe is your food?

By Tom Costello Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/11/2007 7:40:08 PM ET 2007-04-11T23:40:08

Thursday in Washington, the Senate will hold hearings on the pet food contamination that is believed to have sickened or killed thousands of cats and dogs across the country.

The evidence points to contaminated wheat gluten imported from China. For some, that raises bigger questions about the safety of human food.

Each year, there are 76 million food-borne illnesses in the U.S. resulting in roughly 5,000 deaths.

Never before has America imported as much food, feed and beverages as it does today — apple juice from China, vegetables from Mexico, seafood from South America, cheese from Europe.

Last year alone, there were $10 billion more in food imports than exports, but far fewer food inspectors on the job for food grown abroad — and here at home, just 640 Food and Drug Administration inspectors nationwide, down 25 percent in four years.

Tommy Thompson, a former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services who is now running for president, says he was pushing for more staff and funding when he was with the agency.

"FDA does a great job, but they're starved for resources," Thompson says. "And it's showing up in a lot of the inspections for food."

The most recent examples: peanut butter contaminated with salmonella; green onions infected with E. coli; and last year's E. coli spinach contamination that sickened hundreds and killed three, including 2-year-old Kyle Allgood.

"We've been through all the range of emotion," says Kyle's mother, Robyn Allgood. "The grief, the sadness, the guilt, some anger."

While the FDA is responsible for produce, it can't order a recall. Fifteen federal agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, are involved in food inspections.

"One agency has responsibility for eggs in the shell, another has responsibility broken eggs," says Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "One for cheese pizza, another for pepperoni pizza. It sounds like I'm making this up, doesn't it?  But it's true!" 

Durbin wants to create a single food safety administration with the budget and staff to coordinate all food inspections. Meanwhile, the FDA says it's doing what it can with what it has.

"We're focusing the resources we have on the areas of maximum risk," says Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer at the FDA.

Right now, that's produce, grown abroad and at home, Acheson says. And the risk is E. coli.

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