How Safe Is Imported Food?
In the wake of some food safety scares, experts offer advice for worried consumers.
The headlines have alarmed U.S. consumers: unapproved antibiotics in seafood
from China, tainted toothpaste, and deadly pet food adulterated with the
industrial chemical melamine.
Lately, many Americans have become concerned about imported food and
question whether the nation's food safety system can protect them from tainted
foreign products. With threats popping up from surprising sources, how does one
Imports from China have drawn the most criticism. But China has no monopoly
on tainted food.
"The food safety standards in China and other countries aren't as high
as they are in the U.S.," says Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy
Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.
From July 2006 to June 2007, the FDA rejected 1,901 Chinese shipments,
according the FDA's web site. During the same period, the agency rejected
almost as many shipments from India (1,787) and Mexico (1,560).
Reasons for FDA refusal vary widely: pesticide-laden produce from the
Dominican Republic, listeria-contaminated cheese from France, unsafe color
additive in cookies from England, and filthy frozen fish from
The items most commonly turned away? Typically, vegetables and vegetable
products; fishery and seafood products; spices, flavors and salts; and
FDA Inspects Few Imports
Thanks to an increasingly globalized food supply, the average American eats
roughly 260 pounds of imported food per year. That's about 13% of a person's
diet, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Food imports regulated by the FDA have increased from 4 million shipments in
2000 to roughly 10 million shipments in 2006, according to CSPI. One-quarter of
the U.S. supply of fresh and frozen fruit is imported. And more than 80%
of our seafood is imported, according to John Fiorillo, editorial director at
the seafood trade publication, Intrafish. "Imports are here to
stay," he says. "There's no way that the U.S. could supply the amount
of seafood consumed here all by itself."
But an underfunded and overwhelmed FDA is struggling to keep up. The agency,
which is responsible for 80% of the nation's domestic and imported food supply,
inspects less than 1% of imported food.
"These products are allowed to be shipped here and sold with virtually
little inspection by FDA," Waldrop says. "This agency has been hammered
in the past several years in terms of funding. That has severely hampered their
ability to regulate the products that they're supposed to regulate, as well as
get a handle on the vast wave of imports that have come into this
"The FDA program is anything but comprehensive," Center for Science
in the Public Interest Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal stated in
written testimony to the House Agriculture Committee. "So perhaps it is
surprising that catastrophes such as that resulting from the recent pet food
contamination don't happen more often."