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

The Safe Food Act would also give the FDA the authority to evaluate and certify other countries' food safety programs.

Despite prevailing public opinion, Fiorillo cautions Americans not to overreact and assume the worst about other countries' commitment to food safety.

"I don't mean to downplay it," he says of recent problems with imports.

But with regard to seafood farming and processing, "The misconception right now is that it's out of control and nobody cares in China or Vietnam or anywhere else, which is completely wrong. There's been a great amount of work in the last few years by the governments, health authorities and industries of those countries to institute testing, to educate the farmers," Fiorillo says. But governments face big challenges in making improvements when food industries are so fragmented, he says. "It's just a slow process."

Country-of-Origin Labeling

One thing is clear, though: Americans want to know where their food comes from. In 2002, Congress passed a law that required meat, seafood, produce, and peanuts to carry "country-of-origin" labeling. To date, the law has gone into effect only for seafood. Implementation for other products has been delayed until September 2008.

Critics call country-of-origin labeling a logistical nightmare, especially if manufacturers must list multiple countries for a single product. But a recent Consumer Reports poll found that 92% of Americans surveyed supported country-of-origin labeling.

Will knowing a food's origins automatically improve safety? Even U.S. products have had recent contamination problems, such as E. coli-tainted spinach from California and botulism in canned chili sauce from a Georgia plant.

"It's just the beginning. It's not going to solve our food system problems," Lovera says of labeling. "But if consumers are looking at the news and they see story after story about China or somewhere else, they can say, 'You know what? I'm just going to take a break because I'm worried about it.'"

Reducing Personal Risk

Right now, can consumers do anything to reduce their risk of harm from tainted food? There are no easy answers, but experts offer these tips:

Buy well-known brands. "Because of these recent scares, a lot of very well-known manufacturers who have a great deal of stake in their brand names are now taking a very close look at where they're getting their ingredients," Waldrop says. "They have so much money invested in their brand and they don't want to see their brand hurt."

Purchase locally grown produce as much as possible. For example, Lovera says, "If you go to a farmers market, you can ask questions about how people raised it and see if you're comfortable with that. And it's easier to trace back if something goes wrong."

Buy seafood only from reputable vendors. "Go to a grocer that you trust and start striking up a conversation with the person behind the seafood counter," Fiorillo suggests. Ask how to prepare seafood safely to prevent illness, he adds.

Check on recalls. The government-run web site> provides information on food recalls and safety alerts.

Published August 8, 2007.

SOURCES: Chris Waldrop, director, Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America. Patty Lovera, assistant director, Food & Water Watch. John Fiorillo, editorial director, Intrafish. Craig Henry, PhD, chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs, Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Products Association. Center for Science in the Public Interest. FDA web site. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Consumer Reports web site: "CR Survey: Consumers Want Country-of-Origin Labeling." WebMD Medical News: "Congress Reviews Food Safety Checks."

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Editorial Review: 8/8/2007