Most food entering U.S. gets no physical inspection

FDA says it targets foods with 'greatest risk'

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Imports now make up about 17 percent of all food eaten in the U.S. However, at best only two percent of it is inspected. That means nearly all of the food imported into this country is physically untouched by inspectors before you buy it.

That raises the question — Are you and your family at risk?

“It’s too low, and we should be inspecting much more,” U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D), New York, who sits on the Agricultural Committee, said. “What the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will tell you (is) we need more resources and so when we go to Congress and we say you need to make this a priority, what we’re finding is deaf ears.”

The U.S. government’s safety net for imported food is not strong enough – Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington D.C. advocacy non-profit

The FDA’s 475 inspectors are no match for the exploding volume of food entering through all U.S. ports including the Buffalo-Canada border. Food imports are up 60 percent in the last decade. Even at the two percent inspection level, tons of food is being intercepted that could have made people sick.

This year, through August, inspectors refused over 3,000 food products like the ones below.

  • Farm raised Tilapia from China contaminated by “salmonella… a poisonous and deleterious substance.
  • Packaged Basmati Rice from India found to be “filthy, putrid or decomposed substance…unfit for food.”
  • Mango from Mexico containing “a pesticide chemical which is unsafe.”

A News4 Investigates data analysis of rejected imported food since 2002 shows a range of safety risks.


EXPLORE MORE:

News 4 Investigates prepared the following INTERACTIVE MAPS AND CHARTS that you can use to learn more about U.S. food imports

>> Global map of which counties have the most food products refused at U.S. borders

>> See how much the U.S. food import volume has increased in the last 20 years

>> Search a database of all food refusals since 2002 broken down by country and product type


Most of the nearly 124,000 rejections were due to adulteration – foods found to contain filth, insects, illegal pesticides or contaminated by bacteria like salmonella or botulism. Vegetables, fruits and seafood had the most violations.

The inspections are not random; inspectors use intelligence so they can target foods or companies likely to have problems.

News 4 Investigates asked the FDA, which has oversight over most of the food supply, if consumers should conclude that potentially harmful foods are getting into the American food supply system. They declined repeated requests for phone and camera interviews but sent an email response that read, “The amount of adulterated food that the FDA is intercepting is a result of efforts to target products that pose the greatest risk and are the best targets for physical examination or laboratory analysis.”

Food and Water Watch, a Washington D.C. advocacy non-profit, has this warning. “The U.S. government’s safety net for imported food is not strong enough,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. “It’s one of the reasons we work so hard on country of origin labeling is at the bare minimum it’s self defense for consumers. They can decide for themselves.”

But country of origin labels are only required on fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, all meats, seafood, some nuts and ginseng, but processed foods are excluded.

(And even that label may be in jeopardy. The World Trade Organization recently ruled that the country of origin labels on meat telling shoppers where meat was born, raised and slaughtered was unfair to Canadian and Mexican livestock because it favored U.S. packers. The law requires other countries to segregate their animals and keep detailed records. The U.S. is expected to appeal and the issue will likely drag into 2015. Food and Water Watch and other consumer groups are opposed to this change.)

The FDA does not handle meats and poultry. That falls to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The amount of adulterated food that the FDA is intercepting is a result of efforts to target products that pose the greatest risk and are the best targets for physical examination or laboratory analysis – FDA written response to News 4 inquiry

Some experts say the Food Safety Modernization Act, a new law will require more accountability from importers regulated by the FDA.

All imports to the U.S. has jumped 60 percent in the last decade to 69 million tons. Driving the influx is demand for fruits and vegetables even in winter and manufacturers looking for cheaper agricultural products.

“People are looking for familiar foods from their home countries,” said Robert Gravani, professor of food science at Cornell University. “They are also looking for unique ingredients, things that will add flavor and add spice and add sensory things to food that they enjoy.”

Gravani says the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, will provide accountability for food importers.

“There’s a major concern and we really need to address that,” said Gravani. “We need to ramp that up and do an even better job.”

But Gillibrand says one remaining hurdle is lower food production standards in foreign nations.

“Food security is a national security issue and if we can’t produce our own food locally all across the country then our food source could be put at risk,” Gillibrand said.

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