The outrage of the nation's pet owners over the recent sickness/death of their cats and dogs due to contamination of pet food didn't much focus on the broader issue of the challenge in insuring the safety of an increasingly large volume of imported foods and food ingredients.

Melamine, a chemical used in fertilizers, plastics, and other materials is thought to have been mixed with wheat gluten and rice protein imported from China and used in the pet foods.

Suspicion has been raised that the wheat gluten may have deliberately been adulterated by the Chinese supplier, who routinely purchases melamine. Though that may be impossible to ever prove, it's no secret that China's food safety procedures and regulations are several orders of magnitude below those of the U.S. There are reported instances in that country of meats being dyed to make them look fresher, of banned dye being used to color egg yolks red, fake milk powder being sold for babies, and hundreds of people being sickened from a breakfast cereal contaminated with rat poison. Inaccurate or mislabeling of foods is endemic.

All of which raises the question: If contaminated ingredients, deliberate or otherwise, can end up in U.S. pet food, what's to keep the same from happening to food products imported for human consumption?

The answer, we like to believe, is the U.S. food monitoring and inspection system.

But there is growing concern that the system is overtaxed since wide-ranging U.S. trade agreements have opened the door to a flood of imported food products from countries where regulations and oversight are far less stringent.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees about 80 percent of the nation's entire food supply, including most vegetables, seafood, and eggs; the balance — meat, poultry, and some egg products — is regulated by the USDA. The agencies monitor an estimated $417 billion of domestic food products and $49 billion of imported foods.

The USDA has about 10 times as many inspection personnel as the FDA, but oversees only about a tenth as many food plants as the FDA.

That imbalance, and the meager 5 percent increase in funding for the FDA in the Bush administration's budget proposal, have led a number of organizations to press Congress to provide additional money for FDA — particularly since, post 9/11, the system must include “food defense” measures to protect the nation's food supply against terrorist attack.

But beyond that, they cite an urgent need for reorganization of a system spread across more than a dozen agencies, recommending they be combined into a single independent food safety agency. There is particular concern about the FDA, following a survey of nearly 1,000 agency scientists that painted a picture of politicization, intimidation, censorship, and scientific fraud. “The politicians are running the FDA,” one critic charged.

Sen. Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a leading advocate of beefing up the food safety system and combining all the separate agencies into one, says, “The system is broken down. The FDA is like a fire department that is only called after the house has burned.”