Food Safety: How Safe is Imported Food? (cont.)

FDA Inspects Few Imports

Thanks to an increasingly globalized food supply, the average American eats roughly 260 pounds of imported food per year. That's about 13% of a person's diet, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Food imports regulated by the FDA have increased from 4 million shipments in 2000 to roughly 10 million shipments in 2006, according to CSPI. One-quarter of the U.S. supply of fresh and frozen fruit is imported. And more than 80% of our seafood is imported, according to John Fiorillo, editorial director at the seafood trade publication, Intrafish. "Imports are here to stay," he says. "There's no way that the U.S. could supply the amount of seafood consumed here all by itself."

But an underfunded and overwhelmed FDA is struggling to keep up. The agency, which is responsible for 80% of the nation's domestic and imported food supply, inspects less than 1% of imported food.

"These products are allowed to be shipped here and sold with virtually little inspection by FDA," Waldrop says. "This agency has been hammered in the past several years in terms of funding. That has severely hampered their ability to regulate the products that they're supposed to regulate, as well as get a handle on the vast wave of imports that have come into this country."

"The FDA program is anything but comprehensive," Center for Science in the Public Interest Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal stated in written testimony to the House Agriculture Committee. "So perhaps it is surprising that catastrophes such as that resulting from the recent pet food contamination don't happen more often."

Food Manufacturers Concerned, Too

The specter of intentionally adulterated ingredients from abroad worries the food industry, too. "It's a challenge to identify these products," says Craig Henry, PhD, chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs for the 400-member Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Products Association (GMA/FPA). Some U.S. companies have stepped up testing of supplies, he says, and the GMA/FPA is working to boost its inspection and auditing standards.

Henry and all experts who spoke to WebMD agreed that government and industry bear joint responsibility to make imported food safe for U.S. consumers.

"It's not fair to put the burden on consumers to somehow shop their way out of this," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy organization.

Indeed, the task may be impossible. Often, consumers have no idea where their food comes from, Lovera says. A product packaged in the U.S. might still contain ingredients from other countries -- with no labeling to notify the buyer.

Government Efforts

To address growing public concern over imports, in mid-July, President Bush created a high-level government panel to deliver in 60 days some recommendations to ensure the safety of imported foods and other products shipped here.