by Marion Nestle
May 18 2011

FDA’s limited ability to regulate food imports

The congressional watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has just published a new report comparing the way the FDA deals with inspections of imported foods to methods used by the European methods.  The title says it all: “FDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Imported Seafood and Better Leverage Limited Resources.”
GAO says:
FDA’s program is generally limited to enforcing the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point—the internationally recognized food safety management system—by conducting inspections of foreign seafood processors and importers each year.
These inspections involve FDA inspectors reviewing records to ensure the processors and importers considered significant hazards, including those resulting from drug residues if the seafood they receive are from fish farms.
The inspectors generally do not visit the farms to evaluate drug use or the capabilities, competence, and quality control of laboratories that analyze the seafood.
Here are some of GAO’s more disturbing conclusions:
  • Aquaculture assessments have been limited by FDA’s lack of procedures, criteria, and standards. In contrast, the EU reviews foreign government structures, food safety legislation, the foreign country’s fish farm inspection program, and visits farms to ensure that imported seafood products come from countries with seafood safety systems equivalent to that of the EU.
  • FDA’s sampling program does not generally test for drugs that some countries and the EU have approved for use in aquaculture. Consequently, seafood containing residues of drugs not approved for use in the United States may be entering U.S. commerce.
  • FDA’s sampling program is ineffectively implemented. For example, for fiscal years 2006 through 2009, FDA missed its assignment plan goal for collecting import samples by about 30 percent.
  • In fiscal year 2009, FDA tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues.
  • FDA’s reliance on 7 of its 13 laboratories to conduct all its aquaculture drug residue testing raises questions about the agency’s use of resources.
  • FDA has inspected 1.5 percent of Chinese seafood processing facilities in the last 6 years.

And Congress wants to cut FDA’s resources.  I have no doubt that the FDA could be more efficient but the scope of what it is expected to do with limited resources is beyond absurd.

From where I sit, the entire food safety system needs an overhaul and the problems with food imports are a good reason for doing that.


  • Lee Poe

    Perhaps if the Senate Dining Room serves a seafood dish one day and half the Senate gets sick, they will notice something may be amiss. But short of that, it seems a “sacred cow” will have to die before seafood gets a look, let alone the food inspection system. The free-flow of profits aided by a lack of regulations is held to be more important than health and safety.

    It is surprising, though, that at least one Congressman hasn’t seized on this issue as a way to attack China. The very real possibility that lethal chemicals are in imported seafood in the local market right now is a real issue with lots of political potential.

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  • Daniel K. Ithaca, NY

    “In fiscal year 2009, FDA tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues.”

    >I ‘m curious as to what percent of that 0.1% was actually contaminated, had detectable levels of drug residues or were denied import.

    I’m just choosing to limit my seafood consumption to foods like nori, dulse, kombu, wakame, and arame; tasty and nutrition sea vegetables.

  • Joe

    Most foodborne illness is caused by employees in foodservice operations who fail to properly wash their hands after going to the bathroom. All the FDA oversight in the world can’t teach people to do what they should have learned as a child.

  • Lee Poe

    And in high school English classes everyone should have learned that “assertion does not equal proof” when making claims. Got any data to back up that assertion, Joe?

  • Joe

    That is not an assertion Mr Poe. Proper personal hygiene is a major theme of the NRA Servsafe manual and cirriculum. Furthermore many local health departments have adopted a risk based assessment for safe food safety. One of the primary risk factors is proper hand washing. Oh and nearly 20 years in the foodservice business and never have I seen or heard of anyone get sick from eating imported seafood.

  • Lee Poe

    Nice try Mr. Joe, but you asserted that the -“cause”- of “most foodborne illness” is lack of proper handwashing. And you go on to imply that you may have had decades of experience in F&B. Tragic. This explains a lot of why we have so many problems in this area of business not to mention the country.

    Here’s the scoop for you: the -cause- of illness is viruses and bacteria. How they get from contaminated food is called a “vector of transmission” or simply a vector. One of the vectors is virus and bacteria taking a ride on someone’s hands, being transferred from contaminated food to, say, a prep counter and from there to a plate, uncooked food item, etc.

    See the difference?

    And of course if more restaurants trained their employees properly we’d not have so many cases of illness. It’s not just something mom and dad should have taught–and if you really have so much experience in F&B you’d know that. The level of handwashing needed and potential for cross-contamination in a restaurant is much higher than notions taught at home for home situations.

    But if the food was not contaminated in the first place, wouldn’t that be a better way, a safer way, to supply it to restaurants and grocers? (And this doesn’t even address the alarming rise in pathogens that are not destroyed by handwashing and current restaurant cleaning practices.)

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