How Safe Is Imported Food?

In the wake of some food safety scares, experts offer advice for worried consumers.

By Katherine Kam
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

The headlines have alarmed U.S. consumers: unapproved antibiotics in seafood from China, tainted toothpaste, and deadly pet food adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine.

Lately, many Americans have become concerned about imported food and question whether the nation's food safety system can protect them from tainted foreign products. With threats popping up from surprising sources, how does one stay safe?

Imports from China have drawn the most criticism. But China has no monopoly on tainted food.

"The food safety standards in China and other countries aren't as high as they are in the U.S.," says Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

From July 2006 to June 2007, the FDA rejected 1,901 Chinese shipments, according the FDA's web site. During the same period, the agency rejected almost as many shipments from India (1,787) and Mexico (1,560).

Reasons for FDA refusal vary widely: pesticide-laden produce from the Dominican Republic, listeria-contaminated cheese from France, unsafe color additive in cookies from England, and filthy frozen fish from Brazil.

The items most commonly turned away? Typically, vegetables and vegetable products; fishery and seafood products; spices, flavors and salts; and candies.