Ensuring Safe Food and Medical Products: A Partnership with the Mekong Region

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Mekong Region of Southeast Asia, which includes the countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. I was struck not only by its beauty, dynamism, and diversity, but also by the commitment of health officials there to building strong health systems and cooperating across borders in the face of potential health threats. I learned that by working together with each other and the United States they were able to build an effective rapid response to outbreaks of an emerging pathogen such as the H5N1 influenza virus.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.I was reminded of my visit this week during my participation at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies entitled “U.S. Health Partnerships in the Mekong Region.” The day’s discussions highlighted the growing strategic importance of the region to the United States and the long-standing and ongoing partnerships between U.S. agencies and regional partners in health and development, including the central focus of the FDA, to ensure the safety of food and medical products in the United States.

Though Americans may not often think about it, the U.S. is increasingly and inextricably linked to the Mekong Region through global supply chains. For instance, about 15% of the seafood we consume in the United States comes from Mekong region countries, arriving on our shores and in our stores after a long and circuitous journey. Consider tuna, which may be caught in the South Pacific, transported to New Zealand for pre-canning, and shipped to Southeast Asia for canning before it finally makes its way to the East Coast of the United States for distribution in this country. 

Why does this matter to FDA? There is a greater likelihood that food will be exposed to pathogens, contaminants or chemical hazards during a journey of this complexity. That’s why we work closely with our regional counterparts in these countries through such organizations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), sharing with them our own regulatory requirements, our knowledge of good manufacturing practices and our laboratory and inspection techniques. Through such information sharing we believe we can prevent tainted or otherwise unsafe foods from reaching our borders. 

But the risk of potentially unsafe food from this area is not our only concern. A significant threat to human safety today involves substandard, falsified and counterfeit medical products that are part of the global supply chain. These products may contain toxic ingredients, or too much or too little of a drug’s active ingredient, and as a result patients could be poisoned or unwittingly receive inadequate treatment for their disease or even no treatment at all. In addition, if too many patients receive only partial treatment, it might foster the development of drug-resistant disease strains. And there’s this too: a high prevalence of substandard and falsified medicines ultimately will erode public trust in the health care system.

Unfortunately, statistics suggest that substandard and falsified products is a problem in the Mekong Region. A recent comprehensive review found that in Southeast Asia, 35 percent of anti-malarial drugs were substandard and 36 percent were counterfeit. And many of the countries in this region have porous borders and face challenges with regulatory oversight and enforcement practices that cannot adequately protect the supply chain. 

FDA is working with the World Health Organization to build a global monitoring system to monitor substandard, falsified and counterfeit medicines, and collaborating with countries in the region to develop and test the system. In addition to cooperating with our regulatory counterparts across the globe on issues of detection, investigation and enforcement, FDA scientists have developed the Counterfeit Detection Device, or CD-3, which can quickly screen for counterfeit products – not just drugs – at any location, including remote communities and border sites. With our international partners, we are currently planning to expand the use of this tool in several field settings, including in the Mekong region.

Building cooperation for this kind of enforcement is essential not just to ensuring the safety of our food and medical products, but as a means of advancing our national security objectives. That’s why meetings like the one I attended this week are so important. They support opportunities to work with our colleagues in the Mekong region on ways to share information and promote stronger, innovative regulatory systems that are critical to the long-term success of our global public health efforts.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration