A look inside border inspections

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Inside a warehouse at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors sort through food products coming across the Canadian border.

“The border is at best Swiss cheese. It’s not ironclad,” said Carl Nielsen, former director of the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs Division of Import Operations and Policy.

Nielsen, who operates his own consulting business in Maryland, tells News 4 Investigates that the agency is need of a radical change.

“Immediately after 9/11 a lot of internal activity occurred in evaluating the import operations. And the same issues exist today,” he said.

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, testified before Congress in February in a plea for more funding.

“Without adequate funding, FDA will be unable to adequately fulfill its oversight responsibilities,”  he told a House subcommittee.

Both imported and domestically-produced foods must meet the same legal requirements in the United States, according to an FDA spokesperson. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) is concerned about the number of physical inspections carried out at ports around the country.

“I want to see more inspections,” she said. “We need to make sure that the food that’s being imported from places like China with lower standards is safe.”

Imported foods must be safe, sanitary and labeled according to applicable FDA requirements, the agency outlined in an email to News 4. Gillibrand says calls for more resources have fallen on deaf ears in Congress.

“They’re not interested in ensuring food safety, and I think it’s a mistake because the most vulnerable among us are kids and our seniors,” she said.

Only two percent of imported human food and animal feed regulated by the FDA is physically inspected; 98 percent is not.

“The existing system is not doing it,” said Nielsen.

But Robert Gravani, a professor of Food Science at Cornell University, believes the food supply is safe.

“We’ll never have 100 percent certainty that everything is safe. There will always be a risk,” he said. “That risk is probably pretty small.”

U.S. Food Import Share - wivb.com 2014-10-31 14-09-32
Click to explore interactive graph

FDA inspectors at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo showed the News 4 Investigates team the examination of a shipment of frozen seafood that crossed over from Canada.

“Seafood would be considered one of the priority items to look at,” according to Nielsen. Seafood imports has rose approximately 30 percent in the past two decades. In 2011, the U.S. imported over 90 percent of fish and shellfish consumed.

WEB EXTRA | Explore how much of various food products the U.S. imports in an interactive chart

The FDA uses an electronic screening tool for import operations called PREDICT. It helps the agency efficiently use resources by targeting high-risk products before they enter the country.

The FDA also conducts physical examinations of foods crossing the border for importation. The agency says such an inspection might determine if the product was maintained under proper storage conditions while the goods were transported. If an import is refused by inspectors, it either is destroyed or exported back to its home country within 90 days.

While the volume of imported products has been growing exponentially over the past decade, FDA refusals have stayed about the same.

“Which to me indicates the agency’s more or less doing the same thing with the same resources, and that’s just totally inadequate,” added Nielsen.At the Buffalo-Niagara port — the busiest for commercial and passenger traffic on the northern border — the FDA examined nearly 12,000 food products — or 1.6 percent of imports — during the agency’s 2013 budget year.

“Could we do a better job of looking at everything that comes in? I think that’s virtually impossible,” said Gravani.

According to the FDA’s 2013 report to Congress, the agency regulates $417 billion worth of domestic food and $49 billion worth of imported foods.

FDA’s responsibility in the food area generally covers all domestic and imported food except meat, poultry, and processed eggs, which are primarily the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

“As a consumer frankly when you go to the grocery store and you get that receipt you’re actually seeing a little more information than a lot of the inspectors or entry reviewers because you’ve actually seen the product,” added Nielsen.

He recommends consolidating all international operations into a new unit to cover supply chains from the importer to the foreign manufacturer.

An FDA spokesperson says the agency will continue to rely in part on inspections at U.S. ports of entry to keep contaminated or misbranded foods from entering the United States.

But under the rules implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which calls for an increase in the number of inspections of foreign facilities manufacturing food, the FDA believes identifying issues before food gets to the border will be significantly enhanced.

“What the system is trying to do now from farm to manufacturers to retailers to food service to government agencies is to tighten things up,” said Gravani. “To do a better job of reducing those risks.”

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