When it comes to food, imported is in. “We’ve all noticed asparagus and pineapples in December in the supermarkets,” says Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). A recent visit to supermarkets in Connecticut found frozen vegetables from across the globe, including Canada, China, Egypt, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Poland.
Between 10% and 15% of all food consumed by U.S. households is imported, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Also imported: nearly two-thirds of fruits and vegetables and 80% of seafood consumed domestically. “The growth in imports has been rapid—and promises to accelerate,” the agency says in a 2011 report.
But the FDA only checks about 2% of all food products entering the country. “The FDA is really outgunned when it comes to inspecting imported foods,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food & Water Watch (foodandwaterwatch.org), who says inspectors rarely check food processing plants abroad.
As the number of imported foods entering the U.S. increases, so do questions about food safety. Two organizations, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Pew Health Group and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), produced a joint report in 2011 evaluating the safety of imported raw produce and seafood—categories the organizations considered to be “of high risk.
When Pew and CSPI analyzed FDA rejections of raw produce and seafood at U.S. border inspections in 2009 and 2010, they found that a substantial amount of food in these categories was “potentially adulterated.” In the case of produce, common adulterations leading to rejection included “illegal pesticide residues,” contamination with the pathogen Salmonella and filth. In the case of seafood, Salmonella, Listeria and filth were among the most common reasons for rejection.
About half of the seafood imported in the U.S. has been farmed—grown in confined areas that can lead the fish to develop high rates of bacterial infections which may require farmers to use antibiotics and antifungal agents to increase their survival rates, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from April 2011. “Once drugs are introduced, their residue can remain in the fish through harvesting, processing and consumption,” the report notes. China has had the most seafood rejections for unsafe drug residues.
Experts are urging consumers to ramp up their awareness of where foods are produced. “Outbreaks and contamination incidents linked to imported food, melamine from China and contaminated green onions from Mexico, for example, have raised concerns that some countries have less rigorous standards or less rigorous oversight of their food production system,” says Waldrop.
The “country of origin” label—when it appears—can offer some guidance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law, requiring items such as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, frozen fish and shellfish to note country of origin. But COOL does not cover foods classified as “processed.” If broccoli and carrots are in one package, for example, that product is exempt. Regarding fish, the USDA notes that a honey mustard tilapia has a different name and character than a frozen tilapia filet and would not require labeling.
Even though COOL does not require that companies disclose the origin for mixed vegetable blends, many supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, and Fairway do. On a recent outing, for example, Stop & Shop had Oriental Vegetable Medley from Mexico, Fairway had mixed vegetables from Egypt and Whole Foods carried 365 organic California-style Blend Frozen Vegetables from Mexico.
U.S. companies say they are trying to balance food safety with costs. At General Mills, one of the largest food companies worldwide, a spokesperson says the company does source globally to take advantage of global growing seasons. “Some ingredients are available in certain parts of the world, like vanilla and cocoa,” says the spokesperson. “It’s also why Americans can enjoy a morning cup of coffee.”
Stop & Shop says that growing conditions and the cost of labor may impact the sourcing process. Stop & Shop sells wild shrimp from the U.S. and farm-raised salmon from Southeast Asia and India, but not China, according to a spokesperson. For other fish, the supermarket chain prefers to source the seafood in the U.S. or Canada.
Whole Foods is no longer sourcing any of its 365 Everyday Value frozen vegetables from China except frozen edamame. “We are still selling bulk products and branded products that may come from China,” says a spokesperson. She continues: “We want to be clear that we didn’t stop sourcing from China because of quality or food safety concerns. We were simply able to find several suppliers in other countries, including the U.S., that offered the same or better quality at better prices.”
The Pew CSPI study recommended that Congress provide the FDA with the necessary resources to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) enacted in 2011 and suggested that FDA inspections of food imports in countries of origin and at the U.S. border be increased to keep up with the rise in imports.
Waldrop says that the FDA has not been given sufficient resources to successfully implement the FSMA. Provisions of the law include “preventive control plans” for food processors abroad to follow, and establishing satellite offices abroad. “Not a cadre of inspectors, but we will have personnel abroad who can do inspections and interact with foreign governments,” Waldrop says, adding that these provisions will begin kicking in this year.