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The likelihood that your lunch contains some percentage or other of imported food is great. In fact, I would say, it is a given. Did you know that the average American eats roughly 260 pounds of imported food per year?
Despite having a fair number of farms and croplands, the United States gets large amounts of its food imported from outside the nation. From fish and shellfish to fruits and nuts, from vegetables and coffee to red meats and more, America likes variety and, consequently, purchases quite a range from outside countries. In addition, due to our country’s growing economy and the constant demand for ethnic food that is not our own, the rate of imported food is steadily increasing, but according to Issues and Concerns with Imported Foods, this doesn’t mean all the food is safe for consumption.
The Important Info on Imports
Concerns relating to the safety of imported food are not new. In fact, safety of imported foods has been a topic in the forefront of regulators’ minds since food safety became a practice.
Issues and Concerns with Imported Foods explains the quickly-growing market of imported food, saying that the United States is speedily approaching 10 million import lines, and that number is expected to massively grow. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, food imports to the U.S. grew to an outstanding $86 billion in 2010 from 1999’s mediocre $41 billion. Most of the profits comes produce, but a surprising 85% of the seafood consumed in the entire United States is imported. In the end, over 16% of the food consumed by Americans comes from some other farm in some other country.
While this is good for business, the economy, and relationships with other countries, along with this comes a great concern in the rise of food illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) once estimated that foodborne disease outbreaks caused by the imported goods significantly rose from the year 2009 to 2010 (a time when there was a spike in the imported foods market). The CDC stated that nearly half of all the outbreaks were in areas never before associated with such an outbreak, but now involved imported foods.
While 100% of imported foods are electronically reviewed for safety issues (an automated system that considers factors such as weather in the original country), less than 1% are physically examined, leaving an untold amount of problems unchecked. The Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) an international nonprofit professional association based in York, PA, explains the process that imported food goes through, saying that as soon as FDA-regulated products enter the U.S. and are marketed domestically, ensuring the product’s safety becomes the primary responsibility of state and local agencies. But can we trust that these agencies are doing a satisfactory job?
According to AFDO,
Surveillance of imported foods by federal, state, and local food-protection agencies has resulted in many regulatory actions including food sampling and testing, food seizure and embargo, destruction of violative products, Class I, II, and III food recalls, and FDA import Alerts.
But even with these regulations and organizational techniques, Hannah Gould, who is an epidemiologist at the CDC’s foodborne, waterborne, and environmental disease department, says that
As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too. We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks.
While this potential for an outbreak is not a guarantee, it’s certainly a concern! But that is why the United States has Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in place: to collect entry documents from importers and agents for FDA review. The importation business is a large one—too large for 100% of the imported goods to be physically examined—but that does not mean there aren’t rules set in place to keep our country as safe as possible. AFDO calls the CBP America’s “first line of defense” for the safety of imported foods, which is a good way to look at the importing process in general. There are many lines of defense in place to make food safer for consumers. Think about it! The process of ensuring food is healthy doesn’t stop at the country’s borders—even grocery stores must submit to a health inspector’s judgment of the state of their produce.
Beyond that, the FDA has implemented rules to help maintain a healthy market for consumers. These proposed rules require importers to verify that their suppliers are employing prevention-based practices and sets up a system for certifying third-party auditors. The goal of the two rules is to shift from a regulatory system based on catching problems at the border to preventing problems before they get here. And through FSMA, imports are treated the same as food coming from the United States. The Foreign Supplier Verification Program was born.
But there are still plenty of issues being caught. In fact, from July 2006 to June 2007, the FDA rejected 1,901 Chinese shipments, and almost as many shipments from India (1,787) and Mexico (1,560), according to an article from WebMD and the FDA. Issues can range from Listeria in cheese from France, to unsafe food dyes from Asian countries and the United Kingdom, to harmful pesticides in produce from Central America. And that is only a few of the reasons imported food is rejected.
So, while there will always be a risk when consuming foods from other countries, there are untold amounts of policies, laws, and systems in place in our country to make food safer. This isn’t to say that risk can entirely be eliminated, but many problems and a great percentage of the risk is indeed eliminated. We can thank our government for having our back.
Your imported food is safer than it otherwise could be! Eat up!
By: Abigail Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)