Food safety: How to keep our global menu off the recall list
As the food recall list grows and food imports flood into the US, it may be time to revamp America's 70-year-old laws on food safety.
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In the US, that has meant working with industry on new risk-control procedures. In the 1990s, the FDA selected Legal Sea Foods and a handful of other seafood companies to pilot its Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program for seafood. HACCP, which involves specific procedures and critical temperatures for harvesting, handling, storing, processing, and cooking food, has since become a standard for food used by many countries.
In other countries, it's more difficult.
In China, for example, that means sending FDA inspectors to local companies that supply the likes of Kraft, General Mills, and Kellogg with everything from apple juice – widely used as a sweetener in food – to xanthan, a product used to thicken salad dressings and dairy products. Because the FDA has only two food inspectors to cover 22,000 registered Chinese food exporters, the more important effort may be the FDA's work with the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, the agency that oversees food exports and imports. The FDA examines how AQSIQ labs check for contaminants in milk, for example, and trains AQSIQ officials and Chinese businessmen in US standards and methods.
"The aim is to get to the point that we are confident enough in their system to use it to designate higher and lower risk products," says Mr. Hickey.
So far that hasn't happened. But Chinese firms are knocking on the door. They supply 60 percent of America's apple juice and nearly half its xanthan gum needs. Even if the US does enact stricter standards, it's not clear that that will keep out Chinese food either.
Ever since the international scandals over exports of contaminated Chinese toothpaste, pet food, and seafood caused international scandals, Beijing is anxious to improve its own image and food-safety laws. Among Chinese officials, "there is a quite different attitude from what we saw in 2007," Hickey says.
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That new attitude toward food safety internationally contrasts with some complacency in the US. It's not just the inaction on the food-safety bill, despite bipartisan support. Tougher egg regulations, which took effect in July and might have headed off the salmonella egg outbreak if adopted earlier, had been formulated a decade earlier. For more than 20 years, reformers have called for a single agency devoted to food safety.
"It's hard to say we've backed off food safety in the last 10 years," says Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland in College Park. But "we've sort of hit a plateau."
That's not a big problem now, because the US still has one of the world's safest food supplies. It becomes problematic as the food system evolves.
"There are so many changes in the way food gets to the table," says Dr. Wallace at the University of Iowa. "The number of people in the country is increasing.... More and more food is being imported. More and more food is being consumed locally."
The US can do a better, more efficient job of protecting its dinner plate, he adds. "There's a lot of opportunity out there."