Enough to make you sick: Most imports not inspected

Source of Article:  http://www.reporternews.com/news/2008/jul/26/enough-to-make-you-sick-most-imports-not/

From spinach to tomatoes, every few years a new food-related health concern sends government officials and private individuals scurrying for solutions.

A 2007 poll by consumer group Trust For America's Health found that 67 percent of Americans are worried about food safety -- ranked higher than concerns about pandemic flu, biological or chemical terrorism, and natural disasters.

And there is cause for concern. About 76 million Americans -- one in four -- are sickened by food-borne illnesses every year, according to the organization.

Much attention in investigations such as the recent salmonella outbreak is given to the quality and standards of imported foods, which make up 15 percent of food consumed in the United States.

Each year the average American eats about 260 pounds of imported foods, The Associated Press reported in 2007.

But only about 1 percent of imported foods the Food and Drug Administration oversees -- including fruits and vegetables -- is inspected, according to Trust for America's Health.

An estimated 85 percent of known food-borne illness outbreaks are associated with FDA-regulated food products, compared with 15 percent of such outbreaks being associated with meat, poultry and eggs -- items regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

"We need to recognize that Americans are getting 13 to 15 percent of their diet from imported food products," said Sarah Klein, staff attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest's food safety program.

"When you think about how much that is, and how little the FDA is inspecting, it is somewhat alarming."

The FDA regulates $417 billion worth of domestic food and $49 billion worth of imported food each year, according to its Web site. Questions sent to the FDA were not immediately answered.

The organization has been systematically stripped of the funding it needs to adequately oversee food safety, Klein said.

The FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has lost 20 percent of its science staff and about 600 inspectors in the past three years, according to TFAH's April 2008 report, "Fixing Food Safety: Protecting America's Food Supply From Farm-to-Fork."

The organization has 1,700 field inspectors, versus 7,600 for the USDA, and the FDA's budget for fiscal year 2007 was $563 million, versus the USDA's $1.02 billion.

Patty Lovera, assistant director for consumer group Food & Water Watch, said that while for years her group has focused on the USDA, the FDA is responsible for much more of the U.S. food supply, both imported and exported.

"We have a split system, and many people are shocked when they realize how much the FDA doesn't do," she said. "Many more people are familiar with the concept that the USDA is in there. That's their legal mandate -- to be in the plants."

The FDA relies solely on point-of-entry inspections of imported food. The USDA, on the other hand, works with the importing establishments' governments to verify that other countries' regulatory systems for meat, poultry and egg products are equivalent to that of the U.S. and that products entering the U.S. are safe.

The FDA's inspection requirements are company-specific, meaning companies must register with the FDA before importing food products.

The USDA is in many ways "doing a much better job than the FDA," but the organization also imports fewer products and has more resources, Klein said.

The United States Department of Agriculture inspected about 16 percent of imported foods in fiscal 2006, The Associated Press reported last year.

Inherent difficulties

There are inherent difficulties in dealing with any agricultural products from other nations, Lovera said.

"If you're talking about things like salmonella in produce, chances are you're talking about something that was spread through contaminated water," she said. "That's an example of a challenge in other countries."

Items such as fish have an enormous number of challenges, including being kept at the proper temperature.

"There are logistical issues in just moving some of this stuff around the planet and keeping it at the temperature it needs to be," she said.

"There are so many things that can go wrong."

The FDA import model is one of voluntary guidance, she said.

"They tell the industry, 'Here are our suggestions for how to do things safely,'" Lovera said. "When it comes to the inspection resources they have and the size of the industry they're supposed to be regulating, they're just really outgunned."

But according to a 2007 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, federal oversight of food is in general fragmented, with 15 agencies collectively administrating at least 30 laws related to food safety.

"None of those agencies has ultimate authority or responsibility, so accountability for the total system is limited," according to TFAH's April report. "No one person in the federal government has the oversight and accountability for carrying out comprehensive, preventive strategies for reducing food-borne illness," the report says.

America's food safety system includes the government, which ideally serves as a regulatory agency, and the food industry, which produces, processes, distributes and sells food, according to the report, which said that most producers take safety seriously. Historically, innovations in food safety come from within the industry.

The FDA does not have the authority, in this country or elsewhere, to take an overly active role, Klein said. The FDA has had problems with tainted imports including pet foods, seafood and produce in recent years, she said.

"One of the things we saw during the pet food outbreak last year was that the FDA had to basically make a request to China to go inspect facilities that had been importing tainted wheat glutens," Klein said. "We'd like to see the FDA go over and certify these systems before they accept product from them."

While much attention is paid to potential overseas problems, domestic outbreaks can be just as deadly and hard to track, Lovera said.

Two years ago, a domestic E. coli outbreak in spinach made people in "almost the entire country sick" from something that happened in one county in California, she said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants a comprehensive traceability system, similar to tracking systems used by shipping businesses such as UPS, Klein said.

"When you mail a package, you're given a bar code that allows you to go online and track your package," Klein said.

"It will show you that your package went from the UPS center where you dropped it off to the distribution center where it was sorted to an airplane, where it was sent to another distribution center and sorted again."

In CSPI's vision, a farmer would affix a label to an item of produce, similar to stickers already seen on foods at some supermarkets.

"We're just saying, why don't we do a standardized number?" she said. "On that sticker would be a number that stays with that commodity whether it was repacked, what kind of packing house or distribution it went through, so that in the event of an outbreak like the one we're experiencing now, the FDA would be able to track it right back to its source."

Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, said some have proposed other solutions such as laser-inscribed tattoos on the skins of fruits.

But determining who should run such a tracking program is difficult, Lovera said.

"We think it should not be an industry-run system," she said. "We need more than what we have now, I think we're living through an example of that. But right now, I don't think that just a traceability system is all we need to do. That's a system for dealing with a problem, and we would also like to put as much energy into preventing problems."

Ideally, government agencies should implement farm-to-fork tracking to prevent drawn-out searches for the source of tainted goods when it happens, while trying to create better practices to ensure safety before the food reaches them, Klein said.

In 2004 the FDA came up with what Hanson called a good food safety strategy but didn't ask Congress for the money to implement it.

"The FDA has come up with some good designs, but it hasn't asked Congress for the resources to build the house," he said.

The Bush Administration released its Import Safety Action Plan in November. The Plan is integrated with the FDA's Food Protection Plan, also released in November, according to the TFAH report.

"The Food Protection Plan discusses the need to build safety into the entire food supply chain -- including imported foods," according to the report.

The plan directs the FDA to "work with foreign governments, which have a greater ability to oversee manufacturers within their borders to ensure compliance with safety standards."

Hanson said the FDA has announced intentions to open offices this year in Latin America, India and China, which he called a good step.

It is essential to stress that the United States wants food that meets its higher standards, he said.

"If China, India and Mexico want to export to us, then let them pay to meet our standards," Hanson said.

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