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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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Government Efforts continued...

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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