FDA Inspects Only 2% of Food Imports

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in 2010, it rejected about 16,000 food shipments into the United States from the more than 10,000 million that arrived in over 320 ports. Some feel this is not enough.

The FDA told MSNBC that last year, it refused entry on some 3,500 shipments into its Los Angeles district, one of the country’s busiest overseeing 500,000 shipments in 24 ports of entry there. Food was refused entry last year over contamination with filth, pesticides, unsafe color additives, drugs, or Salmonella, according to a News 21 review of the FDA’s import refusals database, wrote MSNBC; some foods were mislabeled or poisonous.

As much as the FDA says it does do to ensure Americans are provided with safe foods, the agency has its critics, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which says the FDA is not able to ensure food import safety, according to MSNBC. Even worse, said the GAO, food imports are on the rise, noting that 10 years ago, 6 million FDA-regulated food products passed through U.S. ports; 24 million shipments are expected in 2011.

Meanwhile, despite the rise in items coming into U.S. ports, the number of investigators at the FDA has remained virtually unchanged, with only about 1,800 covering the entire nation, noted MSNBC. Not surprising that in 2010, the agency’s inspectors only actually reviewed 2.06% of all food-related imports, said MSNBC. Even worse, only about 1.59% are expected to be examined this year and next year should only see 1.47% inspected, said the Office of Regulatory Affairs.

In 2010, the agency inspected 354 foreign food establishments and only expects to inspect 994 in 2011, said MSNBC. And, consider this: Those 1,800 investigators oversee over 44,000 American food manufacturers, 100,000 more registered food facilities, and 200,000 foreign food facilities. Even more alarming, noted MSNBC, less than 280 investigators are working at border ports investigating food when it first arrives on our shores.

The decision as to which shipments are inspected is mostly handled by technology—the Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT)—and which is used on about 70% of all U.S. imports arriving at land, sea, and air ports, said MSNBC. PREDICT analyzes manufacturer-agency history, lab tests, and weather patterns before assigned a risk-based score to each shipment so that investigators can better determine the most risky imports, explained MSNBC.

After the system flag, inspection is left to the small investigative team who use basic tools such as their senses—so-called organoleptic testing—to detect filth and decomposition, noted MSNBC. Stale, even fishy odors likely pass inspection; a cabbage or fecal odor, is rejected if noticed.

Chemical, microbiological, and insect tests are also conducted when a problem is noted and the “Food Defect Action Levels” manual is also used to determine, for instance, the allowable number of insect parts, larvae, or animal hairs, explained MSNBC. Pathogenic insects—blowfly maggots and cockroaches—are not allowed. But, don’t think this means your food is bug free: Ant parts in sugar are acceptable.

As if bugs and fishy smelling food isn’t challenging, matters can become even more complex when importers intentionally mislabel products to allow risky imports in as something else. Clearly, the system is far from perfect.

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