by Marion Nestle
Jun 22 2011

What FDA is up against with imported foods

In an action highly unusual for the FDA, the agency has released a new “special report” on what it is up against as it tries to get a handle on the safety of imported foods.

Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality points out that imported foods account for:

  • Between 10% and 15% of all food consumed by all U.S. households
  • Nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables
  • 80% of seafood

And imported foods have increased by at least 10% during each of the last seven years and are expected to increase by 15% per year for the next several years.

The New York Times notes that in 2008 the FDA would have needed “1,900 years to check every foreign food plant at its rate of inspections at the time.”

That’s not all.  According to FDA:

Manufacturers and producers…face intense pressure to lower costs and improve productivity, fueling a cycle in which the quest for efficiency leads to increased production abroad and higher volumes of imported products to regulate.

Goods entering the U.S. will come from new and different markets, flowing through long, multistep processes to convert globally-sourced materials into finished goods.

The shift in global product flows will make it difficult to identify the “source” of a product and to ensure that all players along the supply chain meet their safety and quality responsibilities.

And it is not just legal activity that poses challenges for the FDA. Increasingly, the agency must contend with ever more sophisticated threats of fraud, product adulteration, and even terrorism.

The FDA illustrated its report with terrific graphics.  My favorite is the supply chain for canned tuna:

What will the FDA do about this problem?  It says it will:

1) Assemble global coalitions of regulators dedicated to building and strengthening the product safety net around the world.

2) With these coalitions, develop a global data information system and network.

3) Expand capabilities in intelligence gathering and use.

4) Allocate agency resources based on risk, leveraging the combined efforts of government, industry, and public- and private-sector third parties.

The FDA released its report on practically the same day that the Health and Human Services Inspector General’s office released a report highly critical of the FDA’s ability to monitor the safety of imported foods.

Because FDA’s food recall guidance is nonbinding on the industry, FDA cannot compel firms to follow it and therefore FDA cannot ensure the safety of the Nation’s food supply.

FDA did not always follow its own procedures to ensure that the recall process operated efficiently and effectively.

This kind of criticism is not new.  Just last month, the GAO issued a critical report on the FDA’s problems regulating the safety of imported seafood.  The FDA’s difficulty with recalls is that until Congress passed the food safety act last year, FDA did not have the authority to order recalls.  It had to “pretty please” ask companies to recall unsafe foods.  Now it has the authority, but Congress did not grant new resources to carry out that authority.

The New York TImes explains the reason for the FDA’s lack of oversight:

Audits of the F.D.A.’s oversight of the nation’s food system routinely find the agency’s efforts wanting, in part, the agency says, because its budget for such activities has long been inadequate. And although the new food safety law gave the agency extra supervisory powers, it is not clear how much it will be able to do, given that House Republicans have proposed cutting its budget for protective measures.

The FDA official in charge of food safety, Michael Taylor, has been discussing the vexing resource question in recent speeches.  He points out that the FDA:

Has a a huge workload. And even though public health officials are working hard, the agency will likely not meet all of its deadlines. On top of the backlog, FDA has no idea what its budget will be for fiscal year 2012.

An agriculture appropriations bill that cleared the House last week would cut food safety programs $87 million below fiscal year 2011.

The current budget situation does paint a challenging picture…a patchwork of continuing resolutions to keep the government funded — as we saw in 2011 — makes it nearly impossible to plan ahead.

When Congress gives us our budget over half way through the fiscal year it’s very difficult to use that money in as orderly a way as possible. You can’t use that money to hire the experts you need because the hiring process is such that you won’t get them hired until the end of the fiscal year

When it comes to food safety, we only have one food supply, and it is global.  That was the whole point of my book Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Minea case study of how melamine in China got into American, Canadian, and South African pet foods.  If it could happen to pet food, it could happen to ours.

To monitor the safety of imported foods, the FDA neeeds to be stronger, not weaker.

  • Suzanne

    An effort to contribute something thoughtful or useful is much appreciated on this site. Being mocked for supporting a sustainable food system is really irritating.

  • WildGirl

    Ain’t mocking nobody. Loosen up Suzanne and let’s go grabblin in Central Park.

  • Kathy

    I’ve got to agree with you, WildGirl, to some extent. My vegetable garden defies Marion’s comment that “we have only one food supply, and it is global.” Sure, we don’t get everything we eat from our backyard, but we have many, many other choices regrading where to obtain our food. I’m working on making my family’s supply a local one.

  • Charlie L

    Tuna should have frequent flyer or traveler points associated with them. It’s not fair my $2 tuna travels more than me! =)

  • Here’s something I don’t understand: while importing vegetables from the southern hemisphere takes advantage of a different growing season – and thus to some degree doesn’t compete directly with American farmers, we are all fishing from the same ocean.

    US fisheries and fishermen are highly regulated to protect the supply of fish. Other countries have wildly varying degrees of regulation. Allowing imports from countries that don’t follow reasonable and sustainable fishing practices puts us at odds not only with our fishermen, but also – and more importantly – with our regulatory philosophy.

    Sure, programs like “seafood watch” can help conscious consumers make better choices – but they’ve hardly made a dent in the seafood I see at the store. Why not simply use our fisheries’ regulations on catch limits, etc. as a template for the amount we allow to be imported? The US consumes enough fish that legislation may push for better global fishing practices.

  • Subvert

    Great to be on the watch for single ingredient foods (canned tuna, frozen fish, etc). Those whole foods actually have the origin listed in most cases, but you’d be surprised at how many ingredients used in processed foods are coming from all parts of the globe…mostly China. The origins of these ingredients never get listed on labels, and are only known by the processors and food companies. Eat up America, cheers to neoliberal globalism!

  • An attempt to contribute something considerate or handy is much appreciated on this site. Being ridiculed for supporting a green food system is truly aggravating.

  • Thibault H

    While I don’t disagree with you that the FDA should be given more money and more control, sometimes they can be quite assinine. For instance, do you know that Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs are banned from being imported into this country? I don’t mean being imported wholesale and then sold at retail. I mean to have it in your private possession for your own private enjoyment later!

    Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs is made by Ferro Rocher and is basically a chocolate shell in which the hollow inside has a plastic capsule and inside the capsule is a toy. The FDA has deemed this a choking hazard for children and thus banned it absolutely.

    Kinder Surprise eggs are easily obtainable in Canada and Europe but if you have it in your possession while your go through US customs and immigration, you are liable to be fined for importing a banned substance.

    Now seriously, who is going to choke on this thing? There haven’t been vamped cases of this happening in Canada or Europe where the retail market freely sells these chocolate toys.


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  • Harry Hamil

    Come on, Dr. Nestle, stop and consider what you just published as it if it were a fact–“imported foods account for…nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables.”

    In a footnoted “special report,” the FDA printed this “fact” in the first paragraph of the “Executive Summary” without a footnote.

    If it is true, then how much of the total fruits and vegetables are produced in CA, AZ, TX, GA and FL?

    If it is true, then why do I walk into my local supermarket and find only a tiny percentage of the fresh fruits and vegetables are imported?

    When the FDA starts off its “special report” with such an obviously questionable statistic–particularly in light of the statistic just above it–a healthy dose of skepticism is needed…something academics are supposed to have in spades.

    I suggest that your check to see if your bias about food safety regulation might be getting in the way.

    The FDA faces a tremendous challenge with imported food. Unfortunately, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) – which you so ardently support – handles by largely giving it a free pass. Instead the FSMA calls for the FDA to place huge additional untested requirements on American farmers, particularly those producing healthy food for local markets. The FSMA concentrates much of its attention on American produce when from 1990 – 2007 only 2.2 percent of the outbreaks (and 6.1% of the cases) were associated with the growing, packing, shipping or processing of produce (see “Analysis of Produce Related Foodborne Illness Outbreaks” by Marilyn Duman, MS

  • Debbie Smith

    Great article! thanks for sharing

  • Sheila Low-Beer

    Among all the statistics I would like to see the percentage of food-bourne illness outbreaks attributable to imported foods, or to sustainably raised foods in the U.S. and what percentage is attributable to the U.S. domestic industrial food