By DEB KOLLARS, JIM DOWNING and DORSEY GRIFFITH
May 02, 2007
Peaches in the dead of winter. Golden curries from Asia. Cookies that stay fresh for months. Powders that turn a morning smoothie into fuel for a marathoner.
But the global dinner plate also comes with dangers, as has been painfully demonstrated in the recent scare from melamine in pet food that wound up in the human food chain.
"This whole debacle where you've got a plastic getting into a food supply shines a huge spotlight on a broken, broken system," said Elisa Odabashian, the West Coast director of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.
According to consumer and food safety experts, a vast array of foods and ingredients pours into the United States every year with little or no scrutiny.
In the past, grapes from Chile, raspberries from Guatemala and onions from Mexico have sickened consumers or even led to their deaths.
In recent days consumers learned that pet food contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine had been fed to hogs destined for market, some of which were consumed.
Although no one has reported becoming ill from eating the pork, the incident has pushed worries over imported foods and ingredients to a new level.
Who makes all the ingredients and additives going into food these days? What's going into products whose names we often can't even pronounce? Who's keeping an eye on safety?
Only about 1 percent of food from other countries undergoes inspection at U.S. points of entry. Often, reviews include little more than a paperwork check.
"The big red strawberries in the middle of gloomy January are very pretty," Odabashian said. "But they're very likely being produced in countries with far less regulation than what we have here."
For years, the United States exported more food than it imported. Recently that balance shifted. In 2006, the nation exported $62.6 billion in food items, and imported $75.1 billion from 175 countries, a jump of more than 60 percent in the last decade, according to inflation-adjusted trade data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.
The bulk of what Americans eat still is produced in this country. About 15 percent comes from other countries, said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. For some categories, he noted, imports run higher. For example, 80 percent of seafood, 50 percent of tree nuts and 45 percent of fruits eaten in this country come from elsewhere.
In addition, a growing portion of foods processed here contain ingredients of foreign origin, with China an emerging major supplier.
How much arrives from abroad is anyone's guess. Currently, seafood is the only food required to carry a label showing the country of origin.
Packages of processed foods must list only where the "final transformation" of the product took place, according to Allen Matthys, a regulatory specialist at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Food companies must keep records on their ingredient suppliers, but they don't have to disclose that information to the public - or even to the government - unless regulators suspect public health is at risk, said Benjamin England, an attorney who worked at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for 17 years.
The FDA has jurisdiction over 80 percent of food produced in this country, including seafood, fresh produce and processed foods.
Yet it has only several hundred inspectors for at least 60,000 food processing plants across the nation, Doyle said. In contrast, the USDA, which oversees meat and poultry, has 7,600 inspectors for 7,000 U.S. plants.
When it comes to imports, the inspection picture is even worse.
The FDA is charged with assuring the safety of roughly 17 million product shipments each year, about two-thirds of them food. The volume has more than tripled since 1999, while the nation's inspection force has remained static in size.
Under agency targets, about 1 percent of import shipments are supposed to get a close look from FDA officials. Such inspections can range from simply reviewing paperwork to actually sending a product to a lab for testing, England said.
According to FDA spokesman Mike Herndon, the FDA has 558 import inspectors. England, however, said the number of full-time-equivalent staff positions devoted to work on food imports is likely less than 200.
A bigger problem is the agency's outdated tracking software, which makes it difficult for inspectors to target likely violators, England said.
In March, FDA inspectors rejected 1,526 shipments - mostly food but also drugs and medical devices - from 75 countries.
China had 215 rejected shipments and India 279. A shipment of "Chilli" powder from Bangladesh was ruled "to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food."
Many food contamination problems come from unsanitary or faulty processing. But the revelation about melamine and related chemicals turning up in two commonly used protein ingredients - wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate - raised a different specter: deliberate contamination for mercenary purposes by manufacturers in China. Federal officials are investigating whether the proteins were spiked with the chemicals to make them appear to have higher protein content.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group in Washington, D.C., has called for a ban on imports of wheat gluten, rice protein and other grain products from China until the FDA can certify their safety.
In an unprecedented move, the FDA announced it would start testing imports of six proteins that are used not only in pet foods, but in breads, baby formulas, protein bars and a huge array of other foods.
Targeted proteins are mostly used to make foods more nutritionally functional and appealing to consumers.
Vegetable proteins can substitute for more expensive or high-cholesterol proteins, increase a product's capacity to hold water or enhance the nutritional level of a product, said John Rushing, a food science professor at North Carolina State University.
Consumer watchdogs believe labels should carry more information about where ingredients originate. But some industry experts said it would be impractical to do so.
"The label would be as long as your arm," said Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association in Washington, D.C.
According to Carl Nielsen, who directed the FDA's import inspection programs from 1999 to 2005, it is going to take more than changing labels or adding more inspectors to ensure the safety of food imports. The entire system needs an overhaul, he said.
"It's not a matter of throwing more resources at the current system," Nielsen said. "The system has to be fixed."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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