How safe is imported produce?

February 23, 2008 12:24:02 AM PST
Imported produce might not be as safe as you think. Turns out, the food and drug administration inspects only a small fraction of all food products that come into the United States.

In fact, the FDA counts on importers to police themselves.

More than nine million shipments of food come through U.S. ports every year. Most of that passes through inspections within seconds of arriving and then moves on to your grocery store.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for making sure all imported food is safe. But despite decades of calls from activists to increase inspections, only a small percentage of food brought into the United States ever gets tested.

"There's also been more than 20 reports by the Government Accountability Office since 1980 that has essentially pointed fingers at the FDA and pointed out that there's a lot of problems with the testing program," said Renee Sharp from Environmental Working Group.

Renee Sharp is with the Environmental Working Group - a non-profit chemical and toxins watchdog. The organization has been trying for years to raise awareness about illegal chemicals slipping into the U.S. on food.

"The last data that they released found that six-percent of the fruits and vegetables that were imported actually violated the FDA standards," said Sharp.

San Francisco food safety lab owner David Eisbenberg says the number is likely much higher than reported.

"When we analyze food imports we find violations 10-percent of the time. But 95-percent of these violations are never reported to the FDA," said David Eisenberg from Anresco, Inc.

Eisenberg is concerned about the test results he sees at his Anresco Lab in San Francisco.

"We have found salmonella in frozen shrimp on many occasions. We found pesticide residues on snow peas and a variety of other fruits and vegetables which violated U.S. standards. We find filth - meaning insect fragments- rodent hairs," said Eisenberg.

But the FDA may never know about any of that. That's because the importers are largely policing themselves. Under FDA policy, the importers hire the labs. Eisenberg says if they get bad test results, they don't report them, they just send the food somewhere else.

"They can either ship the goods out of the country - or some cases what they will do is find another laboratory to take a sample that may not be representative of the import and one way or another they get a clean report and get their goods released," said Eisenberg.

But it isn't that way everywhere. Each of the five regional FDA offices sets its own policy on reporting those lab results. Only the Southwest Import District in Dallas requires labs to report company results.

David Eisenberg says applying that simple policy in all regions would dramatically improve food safety. His letters to the FDA have gone unanswered.

"This is a kin to the wolf guarding the sheep, and it means the legitimacy of the tests results submitted to the FDA rely totally on the honesty of the importer," said Eisenberg.

We tried to reach the FDA repeatedly to ask why the policy is not uniform. We were referred to the FDA's website for general questions about the inspection program.

No one ever answered our region-specific questions. Eisenberg, incidentally, is expected to testify before Congress next week on this issue.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.