Anne Johnson

Imported food is a substantial and increasing share of the American diet. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), food imported from more than 150 countries and territories now represents 15% of the overall U.S. food supply, including 60% of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80% of seafood. Moreover, the consumption of imported goods is on the upswing.

But concerns about the safety of imported food have been growing. In 2008, two outbreaks of Salmonella poisoning affecting nearly 1,500 people were traced to Honduran cantaloupes and Mexican peppers.

Two federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), part of USDA—share primary responsibility for protecting the U.S. food supply. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Dept. of Homeland Security, enforces FDA’s food safety regulations at the borders. CBP does a computerized screening of all incoming items, including food, and requires importers to provide a manufacturer identification number for each shipment and post a monetary bond for formal entries, including all shipments exceeding $2,000 or specified shipments below that threshold.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) believes that the federal agencies responsible for ensuring food safety need to (1) better target imported goods representing the greatest risk to public health, and (2) better coordinate their efforts to prevent unsafe foods from entering U.S. markets. GAO reports have found serious gaps in how federal agencies, notably FDA and CBP, oversee imported food. These shortcomings may increase the risk that unsafe items may reach the American consumer.

First, agencies’ computer systems do not share time-of-arrival and other key information for imported foods at U.S. ports. CBP is working to improve its data sharing with other agencies, but CBP officials told GAO that those efforts have been delayed because of budget shortfalls and unforeseen difficulties in programming its new import-screening system.

Second, FDA has limited authority to ensure importer compliance. Importers can keep possession of their food shipments until FDA approves the shipments’ release. To prevent the premature release of regulated shipments, importers are required to post a bond, but a shipment’s maximum bond value is often insufficient to deter the sale of imported goods that FDA has not yet released.

Third, CBP and FDA do not provide unique identification numbers to companies, and, over time, a single firm can acquire multiple identifiers. As a result, shipments from manufacturers who have violated FDA standards in the past may escape review and enter the United States.

Efforts are underway to strengthen inspections of imported food. FDA is developing a computerized screening tool, the Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT), which will analyze shipments using such criteria as a product’s inherent food safety risk and the importer’s history of violations. PREDICT’s pilot test at the port of Long Beach/Los Angeles was encouraging, although further agency actions are needed to ensure PREDICT’s success.

In addition, FDA and CBP officials at the ports in Buffalo and Miami have adopted best practices that could improve agency collaboration elsewhere. At both ports, joint initiatives have helped the two agencies better coordinate actions when a food shipment violates or appears to violate FDA regulations. These initiatives have simplified agency procedures and, according to FDA and CBP officials, have improved importers’ compliance with regulations for returning or destroying food products that fail to meet safety standards.

In an effort to leverage resources, FDA has entered into partnerships with several states to screen imported foods. For example, the agency and the New York State Dept. of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM) have developed a joint inspection protocol. Information forwarded from NYSDAM inspectors has helped FDA track down and seize questionable products that have already entered the marketplace, as was recently the case with poor-quality infant formula imported from China.

GAO remains concerned that FDA does not share important information, such as product distribution lists, with states during a recall. This can impede states’ efforts to quickly remove contaminated products from warehouses. FDA considers such information to be confidential commercial information, but the agency’s own regulations allow for the sharing of such information with state and local governments under certain conditions, such as protecting the public health.

GAO has made several recommendations to help improve the oversight of imported foods, including that CBP design its new import-screening system to communicate time-of-arrival information to FDA and USDA, and that FDA seek authority from Congress to assess civil penalties on firms and persons that violate FDA’s food safety laws. FDA and CBP agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

GAO continues to work closely with the 111th Congress and Executive Branch officials to ensure progress on this critical issue.

Anne Johnson is Senior Analyst, U.S. Government ( [email protected] )