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Are U.S. Food Imports a Growing Health Problem?

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Just 1.3 percent of fish, vegetables, fruit and other food imported into the United States are inspected - yet those government inspections regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption.

Frozen catfish from China, beans from Belgium, jalapenos from Peru, blackberries from Guatemala, baked goods from Canada, India and the Philippines - the list of tainted food detained at the border by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stretches on.

Add to that the contaminated Chinese wheat gluten that poisoned cats and dogs nationwide and led to a massive pet food recall.

With only a minuscule percentage of shipments inspected, food safety experts say the United States is vulnerable to harm from abroad, where rules and regulations governing food production are often more lax than they are here.

"FDA doesn't have enough resources or control over this situation presently," said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, which works with industry to improve safety.

Last month alone, FDA detained nearly 850 shipments of grains, fish, vegetables, nuts, spice, oils and other imported foods for issues ranging from filth to unsafe food coloring to contamination with pesticides to salmonella.

And that is with just 1.3 percent of the imports inspected. As for the other 98.7 percent, it is not inspected, much less detained, and goes to feed Americans' growing appetite for imported foods.

Each year, the average American eats about 260 pounds of imported foods, including processed, ready-to-eat products and single ingredients. Imports account for about 13 percent of the annual diet.

"Never before in history have we had the sort of system that we have now, meaning a globalization of the food supply," said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

FDA inspections focus on foods known to be at risk for contamination, including fish, shellfish, fruit and vegetables. Food from countries or producers previously shown to be problematic also are flagged for a closer look.

Consider this list of Chinese products detained by the FDA just in the last month: frozen catfish tainted with illegal veterinary drugs, fresh ginger polluted with pesticides, melon seeds contaminated with a cancer-causing toxin and filthy dried dates.

But even foods expected to be safe can harbor unexpected perils. Take wheat gluten: Grains and grain byproducts like it are rarely eaten raw and generally pose few health risks, since cooking kills bacteria and other pathogens.

Even so, the FDA cannot say for sure whether the ingredient used in the pet foods was inspected after it arrived from China. And if the wheat gluten was, officials said, it wouldn't have been tested for melamine. Even though the chemical is not allowed in food for pets or people, in any quantity, it previously was not believed toxic.

Investigators still do not know how the melamine wound up in the wheat gluten. China is struggling to overhaul its food system and improve safety standards, but still faces major hurdles.

While the European Union, Canada and Mexico still top the list of food exporters to the United States, China is coming up fast. Since 1997, the value of Chinese food imports, including commodities like wheat gluten, has more than tripled, to $2.1 billion from $644 million, according to Agriculture Department statistics. It accounts for 3.3 percent of the total food the United States buys abroad.

For suspect imported products, the FDA issues alerts to its inspectors. The FDA flags Chinese food and other imported products it regulates, like cosmetics, for that extra scrutiny more than any other country except Mexico.

To safeguard its export business, China is looking at separating foods by their ultimate destination, domestic or foreign, according to Michiel Keyzer, director of the Center for World Food Studies at Amsterdam's Vrije Universiteit.

The FDA has been stopping Chinese food import shipments at the rate of about 200 per month this year. Shippers have the right to appeal the detentions, after which the government can order products returned or destroyed.

The U.S. imports more and more, though the increase in value is partially due to the weaker dollar. All told, the U.S. is expected to import a record $70 billion in agricultural products for the 12 months ending in September, according to an Agriculture Department forecast. The value of those imports will be about double the nearly $36 billion purchased overseas in 1997.

Contributing to that growth are the fresh fruits and vegetables imported during the offseason, when domestic production dwindles or ends.

About one-quarter of fruit, both fresh and frozen, for sale in the U.S. is imported. For tree nuts, it is about half. And for fish and shellfish, more than two-thirds come from overseas.

Even as the amount of imported food increased, the percentage of FDA inspections declined - from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 1.3 percent this year to an expected 1.1 percent next year.

"Inspections have a very important role but they're not the solution. They are the verification," FDA commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said.

The FDA and the USDA have adopted a "risk-based" inspection philosophy, focusing on specific foods, sources or producers that they believe represent the largest potential risk to the public's health.

"The public at large is not at any increased risk," said Craig Henry, senior vice president and chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs of the Grocery Manufacturers-Food Products Association, an industry group.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, countered that "risk-based" is just shorthand for "reduced resources."

"Whenever they say 'risk-based approach,' it often means they don't have enough staff to actually do the job. They're doing triage. They're trying to hit what's most important to inspect but they're missing a lot," DeWaal said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press
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