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Some lawmakers also hope to reform what they call an outdated and overlapping national food safety system.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

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.

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