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Present Danger of Imported Food

March 7, 2008

High-profile examples of food dangers are last year’s tainted pet food scandal and the halting of questionable food products from China and India. A salmonella outbreak caused Dole Fresh Fruit Co. to recall roughly 6,104 cartons of imported cantaloupes from Costa Rica. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 13% of the American diet is imported. There is almost no documentation as to food sourcing and little supervision in the supply chain to the market. Where is the food being grown? Is food being grown with safe practices in quality soil or is food being grown on discarded land from mining processes that contain mercury? You will never know. Hepatitus-A is a common by-product of improperly grown or handled fresh food and an increasing problem from imported foods. You may have noticed more and more food recalls in the marketplace. This is a symptom of larger problems with the American food supply.

fresh-food-concerns.jpgSince business is not regulating itself, the officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reacted to the latest outbreaks of neglect with a sweeping set of proposals they call “the Food Protection Plan”. This plan calls for legislation that would give the FDA more expansive powers including mandatory food recall along with increased financing. The FDA’s new powers would insure improved cooperation with producers, importers and foreign governments to stop tainted food at the source. The plan is pending action in Congress.

0143freshfood.jpgWithout question, contaminated food is more likely to be imported than grown in the United States. A report issued by the agency a few years ago found traces of salmonella or the dysentery-linked bacteria shigella in 4% of imported fruits and vegetables that were checked. 1.1% of domestic produce checked showed this contamination. Pesticide violations were reported in 6% of imported produce that was checked as well. All produce is not being monitored. Based on 2001 information from the FDA, less than 2% of imported produce is ever inspected. Some sources site inspection as low as 1%. A few politicians have sought to address existing deficiencies in the nation’s food safety and take appropriate steps to protect the nation’s food supply from new threats of terrorism since the twin towers disaster. This writer is not certain how this could be remotely possible with so much imported food and so little inspection.

fresh-food-safety-tainted-onions.jpgIn the past, grapes from Chile, raspberries from Guatemala and onions from Mexico have sickened and even led to the deaths of consumers. A farm in Ojos Negros, Mexico, the source of a 2003 green onion contamination had never been inspected by U.S. authorities before the incident. The report from December 2003, states that inspectors noted dirty runoff from the farm workers’ windowless, mud-floored shacks and crude showers seeping directly onto fields where produce was grown. Photos of the site “show evidence of soiled diapers, soiled feminine hygiene products, and domestic waste” lying nearby. The growing fields were irrigated with water from a pond that doubled as a dumping ground for human sewage and animal manure. 80 percent of seafood, 50 percent of tree nuts and 45 percent of fruits eaten in this country come from elsewhere says Michael Doyle, director of the center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. This is the real threat faced by the American population everyday all in the name of good business practices.

In order to eat safer food, Americans face the prospect of curtailing their diet to seasonal fare and avoiding most imported foods, meeting the cost of increased FDA monitoring and trusting in that monitoring or mandating a reduction in imported food. Ingredients from other countries added to processed foods are also of concern. Where does it come from? Only seafood is required to carry a label showing the country of origin.

The FDA has jurisdiction over 80 percent of food produced in this country, including seafood, fresh produce and processed foods and has only several hundred inspectors for at 60,000 food processing plants across the nation. The USDA, which oversees meat and poultry, has 7,600 inspectors for 7,000 U.S. plants. The inspection figures are even worse for imported food, even with as many as 1500 rejected shipments monthly.

With constant pressure to cut costs, U.S. food companies increasingly turn to foreign suppliers for lower priced soy, corn and wheat protein ingredients. In 2005, the United States became a larger importer of food than an exporter for the first time. The conflict of interest is huge and the danger to public safety is immense. Very little is being done to remedy the situation. The primary interest of business seems to meet demand and raise prices, while reducing costs using imported foods. The expectation of Americans for the latest in fresh food regardless of the season or circumstances also plays into the hands of questionable safety. All food is not equal. Undercutting American sources of available quality food and using government subsidies to manipulate market pricing while importing the same foods is irresponsible and dangerous.

E. Manning

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