Food imports blamed for disease outbreaks


Fish and spices were the biggest culprits, and that is especially alarming because 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from overseas, but the Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 5 percent of it.

So, what's being done to keep your food safe?

Chances are, the fish at your local market comes from thousands of miles away, from places like China, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It winds up in huge refrigerators and freezers like one in the South Bay. There, it is the job of FDA consumer safety officers like Lija Fellows to make sure it is safe. "I am looking at everything from the labeling from the outside of the carton, all the way in to most interior labeling. I'm looking that product is what they say it is," she says.

She'll randomly select a case, open a box, and take a sample to send back for further testing. All of that happens at the FDA's Bay Area lab. The fish has to clear the facility before it can be sold. It's tested for chemicals including mercury and banned pesticides. "Here, we are doing bacterial identification or detection. So, we're looking for salmonella and listeria for fish," David Lau explains. "There are a lot of bacteria out there. We know that some of these are ubiquitous, but we only look for the pathogens, the one's that will get people sick."

And, there is even a person with a certified nose that will make sure nothing is spoiled or "smells fishy." "We looking for decomposition. The seafood, we need to do it by breaking it apart and do a sniffing," organoleptic inspector Lealand Lee says. "We can test for different pathogens, different toxins. We cover different commodities, food, drugs, medical devices, consumer complaint samples, cosmetics, anything that comes through," Lau says.

All this testing is part of sweeping reform of U.S. food safety laws. Last January, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act. Now, instead of just responding to contamination in the food supply, the FDA is actively trying to prevent it. "The Food Safety Modernization Act has given us some additonal tools that make me very optimistic. I think we're going to have other levels of control. Over the last 10 years, the imported food, amounts of product coming in, have kind of gone up exponentially. My staff has not," San Francisco district Director Barbara Cassens said.

Cassens says the agency needs to be smarter in how it inspects food. "But what we're trying to do is put our limited resources at the most important areas of the food supply," she says. That means ranking countries who import food to the United States and focusing on those with the worst records. "And, if a foreign company denies an inspection, then we will deny their product entry into the country," she says.

Erik Olson is with the Washington DC-based Pew Research Center. He says while significant strides are being made, the FDA will need more money to implement everything required in the new act. "We're concerned that FDA simply won't be able to check all those imports, will not be able to ensure that domestic factories are regularly inspected, will not be able to issue the new science-based standards that are needed to protect things like produce and processed foods to make sure that they're safe, he says.

The Food Safety Modernization Act is expected to cost nearly $1.5 billion over five years. Last year, Congress approved $39 million to meet the requirements of the act, and that is just a drop in the bucket.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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