[PHNUTR-L] Tainted food exports a global problem -- China not alone
fivestar at nutritionucanlivewith.com
Fri Jul 13 08:59:30 PDT 2007
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Tainted food exports a global problem -- China not alone
Andrew Martin, Griff Palmer, New York Times
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Black pepper with salmonella from India. Crabmeat from Mexico that is
too filthy to eat. Candy from Denmark that is mislabeled.
At a time when Chinese imports are under fire for being contaminated or
defective, federal records suggest that China is not the only country
that has problems with its exports.
In fact, U.S. inspectors have stopped more food shipments from India and
Mexico in the last year than they have from China, an analysis of data
maintained by the Food and Drug Administration shows.
And despite China's much-publicized problems with contaminated seafood
-- including a temporary ban late last month on imports of five species
of farm-raised seafood from China -- federal inspectors refused produce
from the Dominican Republic and candy from Denmark more often.
For instance, produce from the Dominican Republic was stopped 817 times
last year, usually for containing traces of illegal pesticides. Candy
from Denmark was impounded 520 times.
By comparison, Chinese seafood was stopped at the border 391 times
during the last year.
"The reality is, this is not a single-country issue at all," said Carl
Nielsen, who resigned from the FDA in 2005, after 28 years. His last job
was director of the agency's Office of Regulatory Affairs Division of
Import Operations and Policy. "What we are experiencing is massive
globalization," he said.
The FDA database does not necessarily capture a full and accurate
picture of product quality from other countries. Only one year of data
is available on the agency's Web site, and FDA officials declined to
provide more data without a formal Freedom of Information request, a
process that can take months or years.
In addition, the FDA inspects only about 1 percent of the imports that
fall under its jurisdiction.
The FDA database also fails to disclose the quantity of products that
are refused, so it is impossible to know whether just a box of cucumbers
was refused or a shipload.
In cases of recurrent problems, the FDA may issue an import alert, which
leads to additional scrutiny at the border. Last month, for instance,
the FDA issued not only the import alert for the Chinese fish, but also
import alerts for Mexican cantaloupes and basmati rice from India, among
Rafael Laveaga, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said
the number of food safety problems from Mexican imports was minuscule
given the huge volume of trade. He said that Mexican food products were
scrutinized more thoroughly because they arrived by road transit, rather
than by ship or airplane.
"The proactive and professional relationship that exists between Mexican
authorities and the FDA has always helped to expeditiously mitigate and
control any potential risks," he said.
Banarshi Harrison, minister of commerce at the embassy of India, said
India has recently strengthened its food safety laws. He said
contamination of spices and pickles might occur on occasion because they
are processed by many small manufacturers.
"There is really no evidence of a systematic problem for any particular
product," he said.
Food safety officials from the Dominican Republic and Denmark could not
be located for comment.
Despite the shortcomings with the FDA database of import refusals, the
available information makes clear that quality problems extend well
beyond China, where officials recently admitted that nearly 20 percent
of the country's products are substandard.
Critics say the FDA has not changed to deal with the flood of imports in
the last decade, as trade agreements have opened up borders to products
from across the globe.
The United States imported $1.86 trillion in merchandise last year,
compared with $1.14 trillion in 2001, a 63 percent increase, according
to Commerce Department records.
An FDA plan to revamp the way it inspects imports, called the Import
Strategic Plan, was completed in 2003, but shelved because of budgetary
constraints, several former FDA officials said. The plan would have
focused more on finding potential risks in the food supply using vast
quantities of information -- from inspectors and manufacturers to
foreign governments and consumers -- to aim at problem imports.
"It basically got deep-sixed," said William Hubbard, a former FDA
associate commissioner who resigned in 2005 and is now a part of a
coalition that is advocating for more financing for the agency. "There
was no capacity to cover as imports went up," he said.
Nancy Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph University in
Philadelphia, said the quality problems are the inevitable result of
companies pursuing the cheapest possible products.
"As long as we are pushing for the lowest price all the time, driving
our supply chain, you get more efficient," she said. "But at a certain
point, there is no more efficiency, and you sacrifice quality."
Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD < fivestar at nutritionucanlivewith.com >
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