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The Safety of Imported Food?

Of the 9.5 million shipments of imported food items that will arrive at our ports-of-entry this fiscal year, FDA inspectors will physically examine only 1.53% of them.
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It is interesting to read in yesterday's Shanghai Daily that China -- which has experienced its share of domestic food safety calamities in recent years -- has decided to beef up its scrutiny of food imports. It might provide a lesson to us.

As the U.S. imports more of its food, the safety of it has become an increasing concern. The melamine contamination of milk powder in China that killed Chinese infants and sickened thousands of others and caused the recall of numerous imported food items here in the U.S. shows how vulnerable we have become in a globalized food market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made the assertion that about half of the food borne illness outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years have come from imported food products. According to an August 2009 report issued by USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS),

U.S. food imports grew from $41 billion in 1998 to $78 billion in 2007. The growth has come in consumer-ready foods, such as fruit and vegetables, seafood and processed food products. It has been estimated that as much as 85% of the seafood we now consume is imported, and depending on the time of the year, upwards of 60% of the fresh produce we consume is now imported. Officials from the FDA have stated that about 15% of the average American diet is made of imported food products.

There have been several reasons attributed to this dramatic rise in imported food over the past decade. First, trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and various bi-lateral free trade agreements have facilitated the importation of food products. Second, multinational food processors have shifted production and have set up operations in developing countries where the costs of production are lower and they are now exporting more food products to the U.S. Third, U.S. consumer demand for a year-round supply of certain food items, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, has contributed to an increase in food imports.

This increased volume of imported food has overwhelmed the FDA that is responsible for monitoring the safety of most of the imported food coming into this country. According to the agency, there are currently 226,377 foreign food establishments in over 150 countries that are registered to export food products to the U.S. In its most recent budget request to Congress, FDA stated that it will have completed a paltry 200 on-site inspections of foreign food establishments by the end of this fiscal year which ends on September 30. Furthermore, of the 9.5 million shipments of imported food items that will arrive at our ports-of-entry this fiscal year, FDA inspectors will physically examine only 1.53% of them.

Food & Water Watch released three reports in 2007 and 2008 that further shed light on how woeful the food import inspection program has been at the FDA. With laboratory data that we secured through Freedom of Information Act requests, we discovered that FDA conducted tests on only 0.59% of the 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp - the most popular seafood consumed in the U.S. -- that we imported in 2006; and one test for every one million pounds of all seafood imported in 2006. Much of our imported seafood comes from Asia where the aquaculture practices are generally unregulated and the seafood is often times contaminated with pesticides, illegal antibiotics and other food additives in addition to pathogens. For fresh produce, only 0.23% shipments of fresh produce imports received laboratory testing by the FDA between 2005 and 2007. FDA data show that imported fresh produce is three times more likely to be contaminated with food borne pathogens such as salmonella and shigella than domestic produce and four times as likely to have pesticide levels that exceed U.S. standards.

The food safety bills being considered by Congress attempt to close some of the gaps in our imported food safety net. H.R. 2749 - the Food Safety Enhancement Act - passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July would create standards for both domestic and foreign food manufacturers to follow. It would also create a dedicated corps of FDA inspectors who would inspect foreign food establishments at the same frequency as FDA would inspect similar food establishments domestically. S. 510 - the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act - which is pending in the U.S. Senate would permit the FDA to enter into agreements with accredited third party certifiers who would vouch for the safety of food products exported to the U.S. We at Food & Water Watch would prefer that the only recognized third party certifier be restricted to the exporting country so that its government can be readily held accountable should contaminated food reach our shores.

Short of renegotiating some of our flawed trade agreements, H.R. 2749 and S. 510 provide the most immediate protection against unsafe imported food.

Tony Corbo is the Senior Lobbyist at Food and Water Watch.