Inspections can’t keep up with food imports

The News TribuneJune 30, 2014 

Much of the seafood Americans eat comes from foreign sources.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE, 2010

Are you reading this while eating?

There’s at least a 15 percent chance your food or some of its ingredients was produced in one of 150 foreign countries. And there’s almost no chance that your imported food or the processing plant it comes from was inspected by U.S. regulators.

The Food and Drug Administration is so understaffed and tests so little imported food that one former FDA senior official likened it to virtually “an honor system,” according to a report by the nonprofit news organization FairWarning. At best, only about 2 percent of food imports are physically inspected, and foreign production operations tend to be inspected only if there have been reports of contaminated food.

That’s what happened in 2012, when hundreds of Americans in 28 states were sickened by salmonella after eating yellowfin tuna imported from India. The FDA barred the seafood exporter from shipping to the U.S. after its inspectors found poor conditions at its plant, including contaminated water tanks and unsanitary bathrooms.

Not all cases of tainted food involve imports. Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from Colorado killed 33 people and sickened many more in 2012. Salmonella traced to a Virginia peanut processor killed nine people in 2008 and 2009 and sickened 700.

But at least consumers can have some confidence that domestic producers are abiding by minimal U.S. standards of cleanliness lest they end up on YouTube or reported to local health authorities. That’s not the case with foreign companies – and the percentage of imported food on American tables is rising.

In the winter, about half of the fresh produce on supermarket shelves is imported; we import most of our seafood and almost all of our spices. In 2013, the FDA said that 12 percent of imported spices were tainted by insect fragments and animal hairs – mostly from rodents. About 7 percent of samples tested positive for salmonella, mostly in such leaf-based seasonings as basil and oregano. Mexico was the main source of salmonella-contaminated spices, followed by India. Canadian imports had the least contamination.

Legislation passed in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act, was supposed to help the FDA better do its job of regulating both imported and domestic foods. But agency delays, lack of funding from Congress and food industry opposition to user fees to pay for the overhaul have hindered implementation.

It’s unlikely the FDA will ever have the resources needed to completely ensure the safety of all food, but clearly more needs to be done than what’s happening now. While some in Congress advocate industry self-policing and cutbacks in government regulation, food safety is one area where too little oversight can be deadly.

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