Eighty Percent of Vitamin C Is Imported from China. Is it Safe?

I went to buy a multi-vitamin for my daughter this week and discovered it was virtually impossible to find out where the ingredients were actually made. Labels said soothingly that the vitamins were "Marketed by..." or "Distributed by..." a "natural" or "health" or "natural health" sounding company with an office address in the U.S.

It turns out that many vitamins -- including 80 percent of Vitamin C sold in the U.S. -- are now imported from China.

And while food imports are rising by 10 percent per year and drug imports by 13 percent per year, Congress decided last month it was necessary to cut $285 million -- about 12 percent -- out of the Food and Drug Administration budget.

If enacted, these cuts will make it virtually impossible for the FDA to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011and to protect American consumers from growing food and drug hazards.

The dangers of an increasingly globalized supply chain for food and drugs are already visible: we see increased food safety problems; new contaminants entering food systems; the proliferation of counterfeit drugs and vitamins; medicines and supplements with misrepresented ingredient concentrations (either out of incompetence or intentional duplicity); and a number of high-profile adulteration cases (such as the scandal with melamine-tainted baby formula).

This year, the FDA plans to inspect about 600 overseas facilities, out of the 189,000 registered to produce food for import into the U.S. That number is striking, in light of the fact that the FDA also reports that "80 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in medications sold here are manufactured elsewhere... Nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables... and 80 percent of seafood -- eaten domestically come from outside the U.S."

About 15 percent of the food we currently consume in the U.S. is imported. And all signs indicate that we are in the early stages of a long-term trend. Food imports are likely to increase in step with the staggering increases in global food prices. Double digit price hikes for basic food commodities in the past year have put intense pressures on retailers and producers to lower costs of food and pharmaceuticals, driving more companies offshore in search of lower costs. Imports of meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, dietary supplements, vitamins, herbal remedies and Over-The-Counter and prescription pharmaceuticals will likely grow even faster in the coming decade.

Simple foods and vitamins are now as likely to come from complex global supply chains as nearby farms.

As Michigan representative John Dingell said this week, the "FDA has the responsibility and tools to prevent and detect food-borne illnesses without the money to back it up. Year after year devastating outbreaks -- E. coli in peppers, Salmonella in peanuts, melamine in milk-- sicken or kill innocent people. And with each incident members of Congress and the American people ask 'Where was FDA?'"

The FDA says they are "committed to substantially and fundamentally revising its approach to global product safety and quality." And that the "FDA will undergo a paradigm shift to become a global agency."

Unfortunately, these pronouncements feel a little like Blockbuster Video announcing they have plans for going digital.

The FDA does now finally -- with the signing of the Food Safety Modernization Act -- have the authority to require food importers to verify that their foreign suppliers have adequate safety controls in place. The FDA also now has the power to establish a third-party program for certifying foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards, to require certification as a condition of entry for certain high risk foods, and to reject entry of food if the foreign facility or country refuses an inspection by the FDA.

Unfortunately, as the Los Angeles Times reported this week, "China's food scandals are becoming increasingly frequent and bizarre" with cases of glow-in-the-dark pork, exploding melons, fake eggs and tainted baby food.

So none of these new FDA mandates will mean much without the resources and wherewithal to implement them. With imports and scandals rising, and government funding decreasing, the FDA will have to focus their limited resources to protect public health.

Let's hope they took their vitamins and they're ready for the challenge.