Food Safety Inspectors Struggle with Swelling Volume of Imports

July 14th, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
By Luarence Iliff and Alfredo Corchado
liliff@dallasnews.com; acorchado@dallasnews.com

LAREDO — Day after day, Mexican trucks line up as far as the eye can see for entry to the U.S. at the World Trade Bridge, carrying everything from raw tomatoes, broccoli and fresh basil to frozen seafood. They also bring in salmonella, listeria, restricted pesticides and other food poisons.

Customs and Border Protection officers take less than a minute per truck to determine which products enter the U.S. and find their way into grocery stores and restaurants across North Texas.

Most trucks are waved through. The avalanche of imported goods — especially food from Mexico — is too much for the limited number of inspectors at the nation’s 300 ports of entry to effectively screen, critics say. And the sheer volume makes it impossible for them to carry out their mission: protecting the U.S. food supply and American consumers.

Concerns about the nation’s food inspection system are gaining urgency — especially as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks at Mexico as a likely source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened more than 800 people in the last two months. The FDA last week sent inspectors to three Mexican states — Jalisco, Sinaloa and Coahuila — and Florida to check farms and packing plants.

The great majority of the food that crosses the southern U.S. border is safe, U.S. officials say. But a surge in imports in recent years means that the system of border inspections is badly strained and in urgent need of repair, the officials acknowledge.

Inspectors at the border are tasked with enforcing hundreds of regulations from more than 40 government agencies. And just a tiny percentage of agricultural products, seafood and manufactured goods is actually inspected, say the critics.

“We have this huge growth in imports, this huge growth in trade; at the same time we have severely cut back on our regulatory agencies and their ability to do their job, especially the food portion of the Food and Drug Administration,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

“If they are only checking 1 percent of the stuff and finding lots of problems, then … there are a lot of problems that are never caught,” she said.

What is getting stopped, critics say, is representative of what is getting through.

Overall, about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply and 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed are imported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Mexico is the second-largest foreign source of agricultural products and seafood for the U.S. — moving to No. 1 during the winter months and filling about 60 percent of the supermarket produce aisle. And it’s the worst offender when it comes to food shipments turned away at the border by U.S. inspectors, a review of food rejections shows.

Overwhelmed system

Here in Laredo, trucks sent to a dock for inspection are greeted by a hired crew that unloads samples of broccoli, tomatoes, and dried corn husks used for wrapping tamales. Customs and FDA inspectors move quickly, checking for poisons or pests that could damage U.S. agriculture.

On another dock, manufactured goods are hauled out of rigs by forklift and inspected for safety issues, such as lead in toys. Even tigers on their way to a U.S. circus tour are checked out for potential health risks.

“Whatever is put in front of you, you are going to make sure it meets all of the regulations in order to be introduced into the country,” said Mucia Dovalina, a veteran inspector and public affairs liaison for Customs and Border Protection.

The problem, officials and analysts say, is the result of sometimes substandard agricultural practices south of the border, and a U.S. food inspection system that has become so overwhelmed that President Bush endorsed a 50-step plan that would put more emphasis on inspections in the countries of origin.

The in-country system would put U.S. inspectors in foreign countries or use third parties to check products before they are shipped to the U.S. It also would give the FDA mandatory recall powers over food products. Currently, the agency negotiates “voluntary” recalls.

“For many years, we have relied on a strategy based on identifying unsafe products at the border,” Mr. Bush said late last year. “The problem is that the growing volume of products coming into our country makes this approach increasingly unreliable.”

Both consumer groups and an internal FDA study group said the proposed Bush plan to fix the current system “within available resources” is far too modest.

“We can state unequivocally that the system cannot be fixed ‘within available resources,’ ” the agency’s subcommittee on science and technology said in a report late last year. The subcommittee called the inspection rate “appallingly low.”

More eyes on imports

In fairness to Mexico, U.S. food producers were the subject of far more expansive recalls last year than foreign producers, including recalls of California spinach that tested positive for E. coli and was blamed for three deaths, and of 22 million pounds of frozen beef hamburger patties, also because of a dangerous strain of that common bacteria.

“I must emphasize that by and large, the food traded is very safe,” said Suzanne Heinen, the USDA’s counselor for agricultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. “We have very few problems, especially when you consider the volume of trade that crosses the border every day.”

Still, food imports remain on Washington’s radar — particularly in light of the latest salmonella outbreak.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt announced plans recently to open a food safety monitoring office in Latin America, similar to three being planned for China. He did not say which country might house the office, but he did say that a March salmonella warning against Honduran cantaloupes, along with the tomato scare, showed the need to be on the ground in exporting regions.

“What it demonstrates is that when these incidents occur, we need a quick response,” he said in late June as U.S. and Mexican inspectors combed farms and packing houses in Mexican tomato-growing states for signs of the source of the salmonella.

Another recent recall targeting Mexican agriculture is an example of what consumer groups say is wrong with the system.

In December, officials took a sample for testing from a 5,500-pound load of Mexican basil moving through the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego. The basil continued on to its destination and was sold to restaurants and other customers in California, Texas and Illinois the next day.

When the test results came back two weeks later, they suggested salmonella contamination, sparking a late recall.

Mexico has been the subject of other recent recalls as well:

— In February 2007, the FDA recalled 672 cartons of Mexican cantaloupes after a sample analysis found salmonella, which can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and arterial infections.

— In September, the FDA recalled a hard, dry cheese from Mexico that it suspected was contaminated with salmonella.

— And in early December, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced the voluntary recall of several Mexican candies after tests showed high lead levels. Lead can harm mental and physical development in children and unborn babies. California had banned the candies in August.

Many of Mexico’s problematic goods are especially dangerous for children and the elderly, who can’t fight off illness as well as healthy adults.

Nonpasteurized cheese — which can carry listeria and even tuberculosis, Mexican officials say — is often brought into the U.S. by border-crossers who are allowed to bring in up to 22 pounds “for personal consumption.”

Often, the cheese makes its way into flea markets and restaurants, mostly in the Latino community.

The toll in Texas from nonpasteurized cheese over the last five years: four miscarriages or stillbirths, one newborn death, and four deaths of adults who weren’t pregnant.

All but two were Latino.

A top Mexican health official acknowledged that some Mexican food producers cut corners to boost their profits or have simply not adopted modern safety measures, although they’ve made great strides in recent years.

For example, chile peppers are often spread out to dry on the ground, where they can pick up lead or pesticides only approved for other crops.

“In Mexico, we have a lot of work to do,” said Mari­a Esther Di­az Carrillo, a chemist and food technician at Mexico’s Federal Commission to Prevent Sanitary Risks, part of the Health Ministry. “We also have producers who are very conscientious … of the risks associated with their products and truly dedicated to public health. In some cases, it’s ignorance.”

Increasing vigilance

Still, Mexico is not China when it comes to the breadth of the U.S. recalls last year — including those of pet food that killed hundreds of animals, toothpaste tainted with diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze, and millions of Mattel toys with dangerous levels of lead in their paint.

“I don’t think we’ve reached those extremes,” said Ms. Diaz. “Our vigilance and ability to respond has been increasing.”

For example, Mexican and U.S. health authorities jointly inspect slaughterhouses in Mexico certified to export meat to the U.S.

Two of eight slaughterhouses were suspended from exporting to the U.S. after an inspection in late 2006, according to an inspection report. In one case, the facility was not properly testing for E. coli.

Both are back in operation.

The panel that came up with Mr. Bush’s import safety plan also detected a series of problems with the current inspection system. Those include government computer databases involved in import safety that can’t communicate with each other, as well as a practice called “port shopping,” in which a shipment rejected at one port of entry can get through another.

Mr. Leavitt, the health and human services secretary, said there is no estimate on what it would cost to upgrade computer systems, put more U.S. inspectors abroad and carry out the report’s other recommendations.

But in recent testimony before a Senate committee, Mr. Leavitt said there is a sense of urgency in improving import safety as foreign foods and foreign goods become a staple of American life.

“U.S. imports are large and growing rapidly. American consumers like the variety and abundance of consumer goods and the competitive prices that result from global trade,” he said. “The American people, however, have reasonable expectations that the products they buy for their families will be safe. We can and must do more to honor that trust.”

COMING MONDAY: A look at one producer who works to ensure the safety of the products headed to places such as his hometown of Dallas.


KEY POINTS: PROPOSED ACTIONS

Consumer groups, government oversight agencies and two congressional bills call for several actions to improve import food safety. Many focus on greatly increasing the percentage of food inspected before it gets onto the kitchen table, whether at U.S. ports of entry or in exporting countries. Among the measures being pushed:

— A $450 million annual increase in the budget of the Food and Drug Administration

— A single food safety agency, rather than parallel inspections by the FDA (agriculture, seafood, processed foods) and the USDA (meat, poultry, some egg products)

— Import user fees to defray the costs of greater vigilance and more inspections

— Country-of-origin labeling for all meat, seafood and agricultural goods

— Restriction of high-risk goods to ports of entry where the FDA has its own testing labs

— Mandatory in-country inspections by U.S. officials or certified third parties

IMPORT SAFETY PLAN

The Bush administration’s “Import Safety Action Plan,” presented in November, calls for measures that would not increase the FDA’s current budget. It is a “risk-based” model that focuses resources on problematic foods. The administration warned that “physically inspecting every item would bring international trade to a standstill.” It proposes:

— Requiring producers of high-risk foods to certify that their products meet FDA standards

— Publicizing certified producers so consumers can make better decisions

— Improving communication among government agencies and with foreign governments so better decisions are made on whether to clear import shipments

— Increasing the number of U.S. inspectors in foreign countries and training for foreign inspection agencies

— Toughening safety and inspections standards where needed

— Strengthening penalties against food safety violators, making them more likely to comply

SOURCES: Public Citizen; Consumers Union; U.S. Congress; White House press office

FOOD REJECTIONS IN APRIL
Food safety advocates say one way to get a glimpse into what is getting through the food safety inspection system is to see what is getting caught.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Operational and Administrative System for Import Support, a database of information on refused import shipments, highlights some of the problems and their severity. Mexico routinely is No. 1 in refused food shipments, according to the database.

— In April, Mexico, the No. 2 provider of agricultural and seafood exports to the U.S., valued at $9.8 billion last year, had 48 food-related shipment rejections.

— China, at No. 3 with $4.1 billion in agricultural and seafood exports to the U.S., had 44 rejections.

— And Canada, at No. 1 with $15.6 billion in agricultural and seafood exports, had nine rejected food shipments.

A SNAPSHOT

Here’s a look at some examples of rejected items from April, a fairly typical month for the United States’ top foreign food suppliers:

CANADA

Item: Decorated gingerbread cookie

Violation: “Unsafe Col” — appears to contain an unsafe coloring

Item: Black currant juice concentrate

Violation: “Pesticide” — appears to contain a pesticide chemical that is unsafe

Item: Frozen dry-pack lobster meat

Violation: “Lacks Firm” — lacks the proper label of producer or distributor

Item: Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs

Violation: “Imbed Objt” — appears to contain a non-nutritive imbedded object

MEXICO

Item: Spicy peanuts

Violation: “Salmonella” — appears to contain a poisonous substance

Item: Honey-filled pacifiers

Violation: “Poisonous” — appears to contain a poisonous substance

Item: Pumpkin seeds

Violation: “Aflatoxin” — appears to contain mycotoxin, which may render it injurious to health

Item: Mennonite cheese

Violation: “Bacteria” — appears to contain a poisonous substance

CHINA

Item: Frozen, dusted shrimp

Violation: “Vetdrugres” — appears to contain a new animal drug that is unsafe

Item: Pickled yam, powdered

Violation: “Filthy” — appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid or decomposed substance

Item: Chinese ginseng

Violation: “Pesticides” — appears to be adulterated because it contains a prohibited pesticide chemical

Item: Salted olive

Violation: “Unsafe Add” — appears to contain a food additive that is unsafe

Compiled by Laurence Iliff from the FDA’s OASIS database

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