Taking a Hard Look at Food Safety, an “Import-ant” Issue

As I wrote last week, food safety is a hot topic right now, and it just keeps getting hotter. Although there's a growing "locavore" movement in parts of the United States, it's still far from mainstream, and imports constitute a growing portion of the national food supply (80 percent of seafood, 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables, and 15 percent overall).

On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report about what it calls "gaps in enforcement and collaboration" in the current system for ensuring the safety of imported food. You can read the entire 78-page document online, or just a summary.

That same day, I attended a "global food safety policy forum" at the Senate, convened by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Waters Corporation. Lisa Shames, director of the GAO's food safety division, was among the speakers, and she discussed the highlights of the report.

I learned that three separate agencies are involved in the food import inspections system, which might be part of the problem in itself. Get ready for the acronyms: There's the Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division of Homeland Security.

The CBP's role seems the most clear-cut: It's their computer system that importers use to report incoming shipments to all the agencies involved. But that's not as simple as it sounds. As Shames noted, the CBP's computer system isn't set up to share information about when a shipment actually arrives. In other words, the FDA might plan to inspect a boatload of Asian seafood from a certain importer, but by the time it finds out that the boat has physically arrived in port, that seafood may already have cleared a CBP inspection (which has more to do with documentation than food safety) and be on its way to your plate. Not reassuring, is it?

This lack of information sharing is one of the problems highlighted in the GAO report. Another problem is also technological: The same importer might have dozens of different identification numbers within the CBP's computer system, making it nearly impossible to notice when they have a pattern of violations.

Also, the FDA's rules for importers lack teeth. The GAO report includes this unsettling tidbit:

"Equally problematic is FDA's lack of authority to assess civil penalties to deter importers from bringing violative goods into the country....liquidated damages that importers incur are often so small that they, in effect, encourage future illegal distribution of imported shipments."

And finally, there's the reality that it's not possible—in terms of financial and human resources—for the FDA and FSIS to inspect all, or even most, of the imported food we eat. The FDA's role includes inspecting overseas food production facilities to make sure they're in keeping with U.S. food safety standards, but it inspected only 153 of  a total 189,000 foreign facilities last year. The GAO report estimates that if the FDA were to inspect each of these facilities just once in a year, it would cost nearly $3.2 billion—the agency's entire budget.

Things may improve if the various agencies can start coordinating and sharing their resources better, both in terms of imports and domestic food inspection, but I can see why some people are calling for a single food safety agency to be established.

One of those single-agency advocates, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House Appropriations Agriculture-FDA Subcommittee, was among the forum's speakers. She discussed legislative efforts to raise standards for food imports, especially Chinese poultry, and said evaluating other countries' food safety systems should be a precursor, not an afterthought, to establishing trade with them.

"We flirt with disaster when we remain lax," she said, and "we cannot allow trade issues to trump public well-being."

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