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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Reformers also hope eventually to create a single agency responsible for food safety. As an interim step, the panel recommended the creation of a centralized food-safety data center that could effectively collect data and quickly evaluate food-safety risks.Skip to next paragraph
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If the US doesn't create a stronger system, the effects could not only put consumers at risk but, in the long term, American food producers as well.
The American shrimp industry says lax federal regulation has allowed the US to become a dumping ground for cheap Asian shrimp.
But Mr. Berkowitz, wearing a white hairnet and blue disposable smock on the temperature-controlled receiving dock of his $15 million food-quality center, flips that logic on its head: Asian shrimp is gaining in the US, not because it's cheaper but because it's safer.
"We've inspected plants in Vietnam. Those plants are state-of-the-art," he says. "They're certainly better than shrimp-handling in the US."
If imports are becoming a larger part of America's vegetable and fruit consumption, they dominate its seafood intake. Twenty years ago, imports supplied half of US needs. By 2008, that share had grown to 85 percent, much of it in the form of shellfish – lobster, shrimp, and crab, for example – and frozen fish. Asia supplies nearly half of America's shellfish imports. China, alone, supplied 49 percent of frozen fish filets to the US in 2007.
Consequently, seafood – with its high susceptibility to salmonella and other pathogens, is of prime concern to the FDA. And inspectors see a range of quality.
At ports of entry, inspectors target what they think could be problematic. Of the 50,000 food import shipments the US rejected between 1998 and 2004, one-fifth was seafood, according to the 2008 USDA report. The most common reason for rejection? Filth, which the FDA defines as an article that "appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or is otherwise unfit for food."
Inspections are only part of the puzzle.
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.