How Safe Is Imported Food?

In the wake of some food safety scares, experts offer advice for worried consumers.

From the WebMD Archives

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 stay safe?

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 Brazil.

The items most commonly turned away? Typically, vegetables and vegetable products; fishery and seafood products; spices, flavors and salts; and candies.

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.

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"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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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 safety.

"I don't mean to downplay it," he says of recent problems with imports.

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 process."

Country-of-Origin Labeling

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.

Critics call country-of-origin labeling a logistical nightmare, especially if manufacturers must list multiple countries for a single product. But a recent Consumer Reports poll found that 92% of Americans surveyed supported country-of-origin labeling.

Will knowing a food's origins automatically improve safety? Even U.S. products have had recent contamination problems, such as E. coli-tainted spinach from California and botulism in canned chili sauce from a Georgia plant.

"It's just the beginning. It's not going to solve our food system problems," Lovera says of labeling. "But if consumers are looking at the news and they see story after story about China or somewhere else, they can say, 'You know what? I'm just going to take a break because I'm worried about it.'"

Reducing Personal Risk

Right now, can consumers do anything to reduce their risk of harm from tainted food? There are no easy answers, but experts offer these tips:

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Buy well-known brands. "Because of these recent scares, a lot of very well-known manufacturers who have a great deal of stake in their brand names are now taking a very close look at where they're getting their ingredients," Waldrop says. "They have so much money invested in their brand and they don't want to see their brand hurt."

Purchase locally grown produce as much as possible. For example, Lovera says, "If you go to a farmers market, you can ask questions about how people raised it and see if you're comfortable with that. And it's easier to trace back if something goes wrong."

Buy seafood only from reputable vendors. "Go to a grocer that you trust and start striking up a conversation with the person behind the seafood counter," Fiorillo suggests. Ask how to prepare seafood safely to prevent illness, he adds.

Check on recalls. The government-run web site www.recall.gov provides information on food recalls and safety alerts.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 03, 2007

Sources

SOURCES: Chris Waldrop, director, Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America. Patty Lovera, assistant director, Food & Water Watch. John Fiorillo, editorial director, Intrafish. Craig Henry, PhD, chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Products Association. Center for Science in the Public Interest. FDA web site. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Consumer Reports web site: "CR Survey: Consumers Want Country-of-Origin Labeling." WebMD Medical News: "Congress Reviews Food Safety Checks."

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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