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How Safe Is Imported Food?

In the wake of some food safety scares, experts offer advice for worried consumers.
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FDA Inspects Few Imports continued...

"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 country."

"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."

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 standards.

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 buyer. 

Government Efforts

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 shipped here. 

Some lawmakers also hope to reform what they call an outdated and overlapping national food safety system.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 poultry. 

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