Fresh Scrutiny of Food Imports

Congress starts hearings today on adequacy of US inspection program for rising shipments of foreign food.

As imports of food into the United States grow, so too do concerns about the safety of Guatemalan raspberries, alfalfa sprouts from the Netherlands, and Ecuadoran crab meat that Americans are devouring.

Reacting to a series of highly publicized outbreaks of illness that authorities traced to imported food, Washington is looking into the issue - and doesn't like what it sees.

Now, as US lawmakers and the Clinton administration consider ways to ensure food safety, they must balance the sometimes-competing interests of public health, consumer demand, and international trade.

"Americans are consuming ever-increasing amounts of imported food, with more than $33 billion in food products imported in 1996 - an increase of almost 50 percent from 1990," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who with Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio opens a round of hearings on the subject today. "An increase of this magnitude demands more certainty that our food supply is safe."

More than half of all seafood, one-third of the fresh fruits, and 12 percent of the fresh vegetables Americans eat come from abroad, the US Agriculture Department (USDA) says (see guide to food imports, Page 10).

Senator Collins last year asked the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, to study how the federal government ensures food imports meet health and safety standards. "Federal agencies cannot ensure that the growing volume of imported foods is safe for consumers," states the GAO study, issued this week. "As the percentage of imported foods consumed in the United States increases, the importance of ensuring that these foods are safe increases as well."

Outbreaks of food-borne illness have been attributed to food produced in the US, as well. But more imported food in the 1990s and recent outbreaks (such as those in 1996 and 1997 associated with Guatemalan raspberries) have caught the attention of many shoppers.

Standing in the produce section of a Fresh Fields supermarket in Annandale, Va., a teacher from nearby Falls Church says she's concerned about "cleanliness of the facilities and that the workers handled [the food] properly, without pesticides. But I do buy [foreign produce], especially if it says 'organic.' "

Martina Queen of Washington worries that farmers abroad use pesticides not allowed in the US: "If I don't have to [buy foreign produce], I don't."

Some food imports cause more concern than others because of the different way two federal agencies monitor them. USDA, which controls imports of meat, poultry, and some egg products, gives exporting countries the responsibility of ensuring food is safe.

It permits exports only from the 37 countries it has determined have food-safety systems similar to those in the US. In addition, Agriculture officials visually inspect every shipment of food under their jurisdiction (118,000 shipments in 1997), then run tests on about 20 percent to verify the effectiveness of the other countries' controls.

But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates products such as seafood, fruits, and vegetables, doesn't have the authority to require exporting nations to have such safety measures in place. It relies entirely on spot-testing and sampling at ports of entry.

FDA's spot checks, however, have fallen from 8 percent of all shipments in 1992 to about 1.7 percent last year because of the rising volume of goods. On top of that, GAO says, "Such an approach, when used as the sole means of assessing [safety], has been widely discredited as an effective protective measure...."

In the past, GAO has recommended creating a single food agency to oversee imports. This week's report calls for requiring that all imported food, not just meat and poultry, be produced under food-safety systems similar to the one in the US.

The Clinton administration was urging action even before the GAO report. The president's budget calls for an additional $25 million for the FDA to expand its international food inspections.

The FDA seeks a flexible system in which it can use its discretion in banning imports. Agency officials say a mandatory regime, such as the GAO recommends, would disrupt trade, since FDA would have to ban imports from most of the world until it could certify that each country's practices are safe.

"FDA has warned that it was in danger of being overwhelmed by the volume of products reaching US ports," says FDA deputy commissioner Michael Friedman. Even so, he says, imported foods are "generally safe."

Not everyone agrees that federal agencies need more power. "Both the FDA and USDA already have the authority to halt imports of food products," says Rhona Applebaum of the National Food Processors Association. The food processors call for more funding to develop voluntary, cooperative food-safety programs in other nations. "This cooperative process is one of the best means of improving worldwide food-safety systems without creating artificial trade barriers," she says.

Back in produce section at Fresh Fields supermarket, some shoppers would agree. "When it's good-looking strawberries like those," says Nick Barounas of Alexandria, Va, "I really don't think about where it's from."

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