Alex Pulaski of the Portland Oregonian (part of Newhouse News Service) wrote a comprehensive article on imported food and the risked posed by its increase. I will be speaking in China in the middle of September of the risks of tainted food imports.
In the past year, federal inspectors have found salmonella in Hershey’s Kisses imported from Mexico, illegal pesticides and toxic compounds in peanut butter from India and scores of shipments of Chinese seafood tainted by unsafe animal drugs, unregistered pesticides or salmonella.
As the world turns into a huge buffet line for the American appetite, consumers face increasingly tough decisions about what export countries and food products pose higher risks of making them sick, while government inspectors struggle to protect and inform them. Mandatory country-of-origin labeling, passed by Congress in 2002, has been delayed under pressure by meat packers and retailers, leaving consumers with limited information about where their food might come from.
But an analysis by The Oregonian newspaper of Portland, Ore., points out some danger spots – food exports and exporting countries that have cropped up most often with problem inspections.
Overall, vegetable products, followed by seafood and fruit, were most often rejected. Most of the refused products had been subject to “import alerts,” meaning that federal inspectors had noticed a pattern of problems, requiring that shipments be held unless proven safe.
Specifically, The Oregonian’s analysis of U.S. Food and Drug Administration records shows that food items most often refused entry over the past year (and the most common reasons for the refusals) included:
Candy (filth), dried peppers (filth) and cantaloupes (salmonella) from Mexico.
Spices (salmonella) from India.
Vegetables (pesticides) from the Dominican Republic.
Seafood (animal drugs, pesticides, salmonella) from China.
Domestic foods carry their own dangers – such as recent outbreaks of salmonella in peanut butter and E. coli in spinach. But risks of imports have spilled into the public consciousness this year since a lethal chemical additive from China showed up in pet food, the U.S. government cracked down on Chinese farmed fish, and China-made toothpaste was found to contain a poisonous chemical.
The federal agency entrusted with policing most imports, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has come under fire. But because the food industry is so vast, guaranteeing food safety is virtually impossible.
“To ensure 100 percent safe food would cost 10 times what it does today,” said Mark Daeschel, an Oregon State University food safety extension specialist. “It’s like driving a car: You have to accept that there’s some degree of risk.”
If food were made completely safe, Daeschel said, it would also be rendered tasteless.
“You wouldn’t have any fresh fruit, because it’s too risky,” he said. “Basically, everybody would be eating baby food – something you can process and test.”
Consumer organizations – notably the Center for Science in the Public Interest – say the FDA can and should be more vigilant about risks in imported foods.
The agency physically inspects less than 1 percent of food imports and chemically samples a fraction of those.
The number of food imports regulated by the FDA has more than doubled since 2000. About one-quarter of the fruit Americans consume is imported, and about 80 percent of seafood arrives from overseas, much of it farmed in China.
The FDA is responsible for overseeing about 80 percent of the food supply. The other 20 percent – meat, poultry and eggs – falls to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
China has emerged as the world’s largest producer of farmed fish over the past decade, but the FDA found over the past year that one of every seven lots of farmed Chinese seafood it tested contained unsafe levels of unapproved drugs, including some that cause cancer or antibiotic resistance.
On June 28, the agency announced that importers of certain varieties of farmed fish from China would have to prove their products were safe before they would be allowed entry.
Even that action has proved ineffective, however. The Associated Press reported two weeks ago that more than 1 million pounds of seafood from China has been imported since then without being subjected to required FDA inspection and testing.
China’s export woes haven’t been limited to food. About 1 million toys made in China were recalled this summer because of lead content in their paint.
“I’m hesitant about buying products now from China,” Daeschel said. “They have a different set of standards, and life is a lot cheaper over there.”
The scares have come even as the FDA has undertaken a major reorganization.
But under pressure from consumer groups and Congress, the FDA three weeks ago suspended its plans to close several testing labs and consolidate district offices from 20 to 16.
In congressional hearings in July, David Nelson, a senior investigator for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said FDA procedures and staffing are woefully inadequate to deal with burgeoning food imports. The agency has 450 inspectors who are responsible for reviewing about 25,000 food shipments daily.
Nelson said his committee’s review of FDA operations in San Francisco typifies the problem. Reviewers have about 30 seconds to look at a typed entry describing a food import, but fully reviewing an item can take from several minutes to an hour.
On July 20, three days after the congressional hearings, FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach sent out an agencywide e-mail defending the FDA.
“Assertions that this agency has failed in its mission to protect the American people from unsafe food are simply wrong,” he wrote. “Although food safety problems still occur in this country, it does not automatically follow that the FDA is asleep at the switch.”