New law requires importers to ensure U.S. food is safe

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand worries about food coming from countries with lower standards

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Rhonda Stone told News 4 she prefers to buy local during a recent grocery shopping trip, “It’s better for our community — definitely — and you know where it’s coming from.

Buying local may be what some shoppers prefer, but the trends are clear; two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of all seafood comes from other countries. Imported produce is especially prevalent in the northeast during the winter months. Strawberries from Mexico, grapes from Chili, and asparagus from Peru are routinely found in area grocery stores.

As News 4 Investigates has been reporting in its investigative series Your Food: What Do You Really Know, despite an exploding increase in the volume of food imports, The Food and Drug Administration at best, inspects less than two percent of what comes in.

For the rest, the FDA depends on exporting countries and import countries to make sure that their products meet U.S. standards. That poses a special problem when the food is coming from countries that have lower standards than the U.S.

“We need to make sure that the food that’s being imported from places like China with lower standards is safe and if we can’t guarantee they are safe then we should focus more on domestic food production, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D) New York, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

A new food safety law signed into law in January, 2011 requires importers and countries to verify all imports meet U.S. standards. It also requires the Food and Drug Administration do more inspections and open offices in foreign countries. The focus is on prevention.

“The law represents a paradigm shift in the area of imports,” concludes a FDA report on enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act. “For the first time importers will have explicit responsibility to verify that their foreign supplies have adequate preventive controls in place and that the food they ship to the U.S. is otherwise safe.”

Despite the new law’s improvements, the FDA admits that it can’t keep up with all of the food coming into the country and warns that it lacks the resources “to adequately keep pace with the pressures of globalization.” Despite new systems to target its effort, the FDA concludes that “the safety of America’s food and medical products remain under serious threat.”

In his testimony before Congress in February, Michael Taylor, FDA deputy director for Food and Veterinary Medicine said the agency’s strategy is to “make importers more accountable for food safety and enhance FDA’s ability to use credible third parties to monitor conditions and standards in foreign facilities that produce and process food.”

The FDA declined to make Taylor available for an interview or anyone else in the FDA office.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of the consumer group, Food and Water Watch said the FDA’s plan won’t keep Americans safe. “So what they’re doing is saying these are the U.S. standards. You have to meet these and we might send people to your country once and a while. They don’t get to every country very often.”

In an email response to questions from News 4 Investigates, a spokeswoman said that the FDA has been increasing its inspections of foreign facilities from 213 in 2009 to 1,403 in 2013. The 2011 1aw requires that the FDA do at least 600 inspections at foreign food facilities in the first year after enactment and double those inspections every year for the next five.

“While the goal may be attainable in the first year, it would be impossible for FDA to complete 19,200 foreign food inspections in year six without a substantial increase in resources or a complete overhaul in the way it operates,” the FDA concludes in the report.

The United States imports food from 150 countries. Of the FDA’s 10 foreign offices, four are actually located abroad: China, India, South Africa and Latin America.

“There are about a dozen offices internationally but I don’t believe they’re really a significant inspection force,” said Carl Nielsen, former director of the FDA’s division of import operations.

Watchdogs are especially worried about water quality in exporting countries.

“We’ve seen food safety problems that were caused by contaminated water. Water was either used to irrigate the crops or it was used to wash them and pack them. Clean water is a huge part of produce safety,” said Patty Lovera.

Professor Charles Benbrook of Washington State University studies government pesticide data. He says the laws that have led American farmers to reduce their use of higher risk pesticides do not apply to farmers in other countries.

“The most worrisome source of high residue and high risk foods are imported fruits and vegetables that many of us depend on in the winter when domestic sources of like strawberries, grapes, peas, green beans are not available,” said Benbrook. “The data collected by the Department of Agriculture is very clear on this point that the distribution of risks in the American diet have shifted substantially to imported food sources in large part because American farmers have really done a good job since passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act in reducing their use and reliance on many of the higher risk pesticides by, for example, extending the pre-harvest interval which is the time between when the pesticide is applied in the field and when the fruit or vegetable can be harvested.”

For local retailers, questions about safety of imported foods has them checking.

Wegmans sends staff to orchards, plants and fish hatcheries. Tops enlists third parties.

“We’re on the ground. We’re at the farms. We’re out on the fishing boats. Our customers demand that of us, that assurance and we want to be able to offer the freshest and highest quality product for them,” said Kelly Schoeneck, vice president of meat and seafood merchandising for Wegmans.

At Tops, Jeff Culhane, vice president of perishable sales and merchandising said the chain has its own system for checking on the safety of imported foods.

“In some cases we do hire our own internal auditors,” said Culhane. “In a number of cases as part of the process of dealing with Tops Markets we do require that the manufacturer from time to time have independent audits done on their facility, on their product and they do send documentation to us.”

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