By Rick Schmitt, FairWarning
In April 2012, inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigated a seafood company in southern India that had been exporting tons of frozen yellowfin tuna to the United States. What they found wasn’t appetizing: water tanks rife with microbiological contamination, rusty carving knives, paint peeling above the work area, unsanitary bathrooms, and an outdoor ice machine covered with insects and “apparent bird feces,” according to the report.
The FDA issued an “import alert” that barred Moon Fishery India Pvt. Ltd. from shipping fish to the United States. But the damage to public health had been done. By the time the FDA inspected the plant, a salmonella outbreak already had erupted around the U.S. Ultimately, 425 people in 28 states and the District of Columbia were sickened.
The fact that tons of bad fish had sailed into this country was not a surprise. The FDA has been outgunned and overmatched for years as a rising tide of imported food has found a place at the U.S. dinner table. For budget reasons, usually only 1 percent to 2 percent of food imports are physically inspected by the agency each year. Typically, operations such as the one in India are inspected only if something goes terribly wrong.
The violations that FDA inspectors are finding pose some serious health risks. According to the analysis by FairWarning and the Investigative News Network, some 16,700 shipments of imported foods were barred over the past decade because they included a “filthy, putrid or decomposed substance” or were “otherwise unfit for food.” According to FDA records, foods rejected last year included hard candy from Mexico deemed “filthy” or “poisonous,” salmonella-infected cumin and ginger from India, and fish from Vietnam with excessive levels of histamine, which can cause food intolerances in some people.
The FDA declined to make officials available to comment for this story. The agency also refused a request by FairWarning to accompany inspectors at a port of entry. In response to questions, an FDA spokeswoman provided publicly available links to the agency’s website, previously issued news releases, and congressional testimony by agency officials.
“It is important to note that while FDA is not able to physically inspect a large percentage of food entries, all import entries are electronically screened using an automated system, which helps field inspectors determine which products pose the greatest risk and, therefore, should be physically examined,” the agency said in a report to Congress last year.
Imports were supposed to face tighter scrutiny by now. In January 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law an overhaul of the way the FDA regulates imported and domestically produced foods, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act. But outsized hopes for the law have gone unfulfilled because of agency delays, flagging interest in public funding in Congress, and food industry opposition to proposed new user fees to finance the overhaul.
At least eight outbreaks of food-borne disease — tied to hundreds of illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths — have occurred since the law passed.
The smorgasbord of tainted foods includes ricotta cheese from Italy that was linked to a 2012 multi-state outbreak of listeriosis, a bacterial infection. Among the victims: a California woman, 27 weeks pregnant, who gave birth prematurely after eating the cheese. Her child tested positive for listeria and later died.
That adds to an already large toll of food poisoning victims. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans come down with a food-borne illness each year, with children, the elderly and the infirm suffering disproportionately.
“They look at very, very little. They sample very, very little. There is a risky environment out there for food because FDA is so weak,” said William Hubbard, a former FDA senior associate commissioner. “It is still a little bit of an honor system.”
Said Carl Nielsen, a former director of FDA’s import operations: “It is the same system. It is the same lack of resources. It is a huge, huge problem.”
AFP Photo/ Johannes Eisele
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