As imported food continues to rise in the U.S., a recent investigation found that the food from overseas has not been well-regulated. Two years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected a seafood exporter in India after they found that hundreds of Americans in 28 different states contracted salmonella after consuming yellowfin tuna imported from the company. The investigation revealed unsanitary conditions at the plant, including rusty knives, paint that was peeling off of the walls over the workspace, contaminated water tanks, unclean bathrooms, as well as an ice machine crawling with insects and possibly covered in bird feces. The FDA prevented any further shipments to the U.S., but by then 425 people had already been sickened with salmonella.
The Food Safety Modernization Act from 2011 was created to address these issues and prevent further occurrences. However, due to lack of funding, agency delays, and opposition to user fees from the food industry, the provisions from this act have not yet been implemented.
The total U.S. food imports have risen from nearly $41 billion in 1999 to almost $110 billion in imported food in 2013. Out of this number, only one to two percent of the imported food is physically inspected by the FDA. Because of how much food is being shipped to the U.S., it is hard for the FDA to keep a handle on the volume of everything. Most of the time, the agency does not inspect food-processing plants overseas unless there is evidence of a problem with the product, or there have been reports of food contamination.
The low inspection rate by the FDA puts consumers in the U.S. at risk for food-borne illnesses. Just about all imported food is allowed to enter the country without having to go through a visual examination. The FDA is so incredibly understaffed that they do not have enough workers to keep up with the regulation of food imported from overseas.
Not all tainted food comes from abroad. In 2012, cantaloupes from Colorado were found to be contaminated with Listeria. The incident killed 33 consumers and many more fell ill. In 2008 and 2009, salmonella was traced back to a peanut processing plant in Virginia. Nine people died from the incident and 700 were sickened.
At least consumers can feel confident that domestic producers are following minimal standards of cleanliness in the United States. However, the amount of imported food continues to rise. In the winter, around half of all fresh produce is imported from overseas. A general rule of thumb is that if it is not in season, it is more than likely imported.
The main imports are seafood and spices. Last year, the FDA reported that at least 12 percent of spices from overseas were contaminated with rodent hair and insect fragments. Seven percent of the sampled spices contained salmonella, mainly in leaf-based spices like basil or oregano. Mexico was revealed to be the main source of seasonings contaminated by salmonella, followed by India. Canadian imports were found to have the least contamination.
More than likely, the FDA will not be able to keep track of every food import that comes into the United States, even if they were not currently understaffed. Regardless of congressional budget cuts, inspection of food imported from overseas is one area that could use better regulation.
By Addi Simmons