May 24, 2007
TO: PTNPA Active and Associate MembersFROM: Russell E. Barker, President & CEOSUBJECT: Watching for Iffy Imports
Skimpy U.S. Inspection Resources Are Raising Concerns
Tainted food imports from China have stirred anxiety among U.S. consumers, but how safe is the food sent here by other countries?
It's a complicated picture, made even more so because the amount of food we get from outside the United States is increasing rapidly. From 2002 to 2006, the value of China's food exports to the United States -- agricultural products plus seafood -- more than doubled, from $2.7 billion to $6.1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During that same period, total food imports to this country rose from $42 billion to $65 billion.
In a perfect world, exporting countries would carefully watch for hazards, and the United States would have a good system of safety backups.
As a rule, more-developed countries such as Japan, Canada and the 27 members of the European Union have strict inspection procedures akin to those in the United States, as does Mexico, a North American Free Trade Agreement partner, a USDA spokesman said.
But countries in Asia and Latin America were accused of importing potentially risky farm-raised seafood in a report last month by the consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch. Titled "Import Alert," the report stated that many fish farms in those regions control fish disease and parasites with antibiotics and chemicals that leave residues and are banned in the United States. The group said the Food and Drug Administration's inspections of imported fish are lax.
No one has a country-by-country scorecard. In interviews, experts suggested that imported-food safety is a crapshoot because no country can examine every batch of every product. What's more, when bacteria contaminate a crop or production lot -- as with California spinach last year -- only part of the output is affected. Then, too, many people can eat bad food and not get sick.
The USDA maintains strict controls over imports of meat, poultry and eggs, requiring that all importing countries have inspection systems equivalent to ours. That equivalency is determined through a lengthy process of reports, overseas inspections and audits, said Karen Stuck, an assistant administrator in the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service's Office of International Affairs.
"Next, the country has to tell us which individual plants are operating at an equivalent level to the U.S.," she said. After those plants are certified, the USDA "will certify each individual shipment as eligible to enter the U.S."
The USDA also has inspectors at ports of entry examining shipments and documents, Stuck said, and agency workers visit foreign countries for annual on-site audits. For fruits and other commodities prone to insect infestation, the USDA requires shippers in all countries or their American importers to obtain permits that force compliance with certain conditions -- for example, the use of methods such as irradiation to eliminate weevils in mangoes grown in India.
Foods other than meat, poultry and eggs fall under the FDA's purview. When one of those items arrives at a U.S. port or border, it must come from a facility registered with the agency. The sender must provide details about the type of product, origin, destination and more. On the basis of that data, the FDA decides whether to allow or refuse the merchandise. Reasons for refusal can include mislabeling, filth, pesticide residues and harmful bacteria. At present, any plant-related food originating in China is being detained until the agency receives test results from an independent laboratory showing that the product meets U.S. standards.
The FDA inspects very few of the shipments subject to its review: fewer than 1 percent in 2006, and that level is shrinking. It was 1.5 percent in 1997 and is predicted to fall to 0.7 percent this year. That's because while import volume is growing, the staff of inspectors is not, a spokesman explained.
The agency rarely visits other countries to inspect plants or products. David Acheson, the FDA's newly appointed assistant commissioner for food protection, said the agency "dispatches teams to foreign countries when there is a problem." To illustrate, he said: "We sent inspectors to China. We had three people there for a couple of weeks. We have had teams in Mexico dealing with cantaloupes and salmonella. We have had teams in Italy because of botulinum toxin in olives."
Acheson said that in his new job, created in response to the recent incidents of contaminated domestic and foreign food, he is developing an "integrated" food safety plan that would consolidate work now scattered among different offices and put strong emphasis on prevention.
The FDA cannot emulate the USDA's equivalency requirements, Acheson said. "It is difficult to demonstrate what is equivalent for all the products FDA regulates. Often in foreign countries, products may be under different agencies, so we have to work with different agencies in any given country."
The FDA's skimpy resources for its food inspection duties have spurred industry and consumer advocates to press Congress to give the agency more money. Given the China situation, "maybe Congress will believe us," said Jenny Scott, a vice president for the Food Products Association trade group.