How Safe Is Imported Food?
In the wake of some food safety scares, experts offer advice for worried consumers.
Food Manufacturers Concerned, Too
The specter of intentionally adulterated ingredients from abroad worries the
food industry, too. "It's a challenge to identify these products," says
Craig Henry, PhD, chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs
for the 400-member Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Products
Association (GMA/FPA). Some U.S. companies have stepped up testing of supplies,
he says, and the GMA/FPA is working to boost its inspection and auditing
Henry and all experts who spoke to WebMD agreed that government and industry
bear joint responsibility to make imported food safe for U.S. consumers.
"It's not fair to put the burden on consumers to somehow shop their way
out of this," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water
Watch, a consumer advocacy organization.
Indeed, the task may be impossible. Often, consumers have no idea where
their food comes from, Lovera says. A product packaged in the U.S. might still
contain ingredients from other countries -- with no labeling to notify the
To address growing public concern over imports, in mid-July, President Bush
created a high-level government panel to deliver in 60 days some
recommendations to ensure the safety of imported foods and other products
Some lawmakers also hope to reform what they call an outdated and
overlapping national food safety system. The Safe Food Act, introduced by Sen.
Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., seeks to streamline
food safety at the federal level into a single Food Safety Administration.
Currently, at least a dozen federal agencies oversee food safety, including the
FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects imported meat and
The Safe Food Act would also give the FDA the authority to evaluate and
certify other countries' food safety programs.
Despite prevailing public opinion, Fiorillo cautions Americans not to
overreact and assume the worst about other countries' commitment to food
"I don't mean to downplay it," he says of recent problems with
But with regard to seafood farming and processing, "The misconception
right now is that it's out of control and nobody cares in China or Vietnam or
anywhere else, which is completely wrong. There's been a great amount of work
in the last few years by the governments, health authorities and industries of
those countries to institute testing, to educate the farmers," Fiorillo
says. But governments face big challenges in making improvements when food
industries are so fragmented, he says. "It's just a slow
One thing is clear, though: Americans want to know where their food comes
from. In 2002, Congress passed a law that required meat, seafood, produce, and
peanuts to carry "country-of-origin" labeling. To date, the law has
gone into effect only for seafood. Implementation for other products has
been delayed until September 2008.