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 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 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.
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The violations that FDA inspectors are finding pose some serious health risks. According to an 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.
Law falls short
Imports were supposed to face tighter scrutiny by now. In January 2011, President 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 also deaths — have occurred since the law passed.
The smorgasbord of tainted foods includes ricotta cheese from Italy that was linked to a 2012 multistate 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.”
U.S. foods not immune
To be sure, some of the worst cases of illness have involved U.S.-grown foods. Some three dozen people died in 2011 after eating cantaloupe from a farm in Colorado. Four officials of a Virginia peanut company are scheduled to stand trial starting July 14 on fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened 700.
But rising imports have brought rising concern.
About 15 percent of the food Americans now consume is imported, including about half the fruits and vegetables in the winter, most seafood throughout the year and virtually all spices. FDA-regulated imports originate from an estimated 130,000 facilities worldwide in 150 countries.
The FDA is responsible for 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including imports, but its resources are dwarfed by those of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an arm of the Agriculture Department, which regulates meat, poultry and eggs.
The new food-safety law called for a big increase in the FDA’s inspection staff and set bold new goals for preventing contamination at foreign food plants, including a stepped-up role for private auditors and new duties for importers.
But key regulations called for under the new law haven’t been implemented, and the agency is under a consent order to pick up the pace, after a lawsuit by a public-interest group, the Washington-based Center for Food Safety.
The FDA is far behind in meeting other mandates, too: The law provides for the agency to inspect 19,200 foreign plants by 2016. In 2012 — the most recent data available — the agency had inspected just 1,342 plants, with little hope of much growth anytime soon. Implementing the law, the FDA wrote in a report to Congress last year, “would require hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding, which the agency cannot realistically expect to receive.”
“This is mindless, what is happening,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a lead sponsor of the food-safety legislation. “We need to provide the money to FDA so we can protect people.”
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit news organization focused on public health, safety and environmental issues. Denise Malan of the Investigative News Network contributed to this story.