Imported Foods—What’s Safe, What’s Risky?

imported cheese Imported foods must meet the same safety standards as domestically produced food, says the new Food Safety  Modernization Act, so why should Americans be worried about imports?  Here are three reasons:


1. The amount of imported food  entering the U.S. keeps escalating. At least 25,000 shipments of FDA-regulated foods (from almost 100 countries) enter the United States every day.  According to the FDA, “What we have is a global supermarket and the products Americans purchase come from all over the world.  More foreign facilities are supplying the United States with products, the volume of imported products is increasing, and the supply chains continue to grow in complexity.”


USA Today supplied a few examples of what we import: anchovies from Thailand, dried apricots from Turkey, grapes from Chile, and sesame seeds from India.  The newspaper went on to say this: “…imports account for 80% of the nation’s seafood, 45% of its fresh fruit, and 17% of its fresh vegetables.”


BUT the FDA inspects only about 1% of the imported food the agency is responsible for.  Nearly all products are allowed in after a quick electronic review of  information submitted by the importer or its agent.  On the other hand, the USDA inspects about 16% of the meat and poultry it supervises. Better funding enables this agency to do a better job.  But about 80% of American food is under the supervision of the FDA.


2. Media coverage of the new Food Safety Act emphasized its provisions for  improved FDA supervision of imported foods.  Since it will take awhile for the provisions of the Act to be implemented, the consumer of imported products has to wonder what risks are currently involved in enjoying these exotic delicacies.


3. Then there’s the little matter of money. According to the Chicago Tribune, the legislation does not come with built-in funding and would require $1.4 billion over the next five years. The necessary spending bill will have to be approved in a House controlled by Republicans, many of whom voted against the original measure.” If the FDA doesn’t get sufficient annual funding from Congress, some of the safety provisions outlined in the Act will just be words on paper. 


How much imported food does the average American eat?


Nutrition Action (Jan./Feb. 2011) supplies these statistics:  “The average American eats roughly 260 pounds of imported food every year.  Imports account for close to 15 percent of our diet.”  [That’s up from 13% in 2008]. The article goes on to say that about one-fourth of our fruit nad  half of our nuts come from other countries.   


Why do we allow so many  imported products into the U.S.?


•  In some cases, the product may not be grown anywhere in the U.S. The best example is bananas.  Almost none are grown in the U.S., yet bananas seem to be in most American homes.


•  Many imports satisfy seasonal needs.  USA Today says, “At the border checkpoint near Nogales [the border cities in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico]  in the peaks winter season 1,000 produce trucks arrive daily, carrying eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and other products.”


•  Then there are the imported packaged goods that consumers purchase because the item  may not be produced at all in the U.S., or the imported ones taste better and/or  more “authentic.”


What is the main problem with imported foods?


According to food scientist Dr. Karin Allen, the main problem with imported foods  is not contamination with pathogens; it is label compliance.  In other words, some products contain ingredients not allowed in foods in the U.S.  These include pesticides, additives banned in the U.S.,  or common allergens that the FDA requires be listed on the package but aren’t listed.


Will the new Food Safety Act provide increased protection from contaminated imported food?


According to, the law provides significant enhancements to the FDA’s ability to oversee food produced in foreign countries and imported into the U.S.  In addition, the FDA now has the authority to prevent a food from entering he U.S. if  the facility has refused inspection. The legislation requires foreign food producers to certify that they met FDA standards and would allow the agency to evaluate foreign food safety authorities to ensure that contamination risks are controlled. Food scientist Joe Regenstein points this out:  “Each country DOES have an agency equal in principle to the FDA.  Some are a lot worse than the FDA, and some are better at controlling contamination risks.”


Nevertheless, the scientists on the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board expressed concern that the Act would not have much impact because it’s likely to be inadequately funded. If that happens, the FDA would not have the resources to do the kinds of inspections and testing needed to make significant improvements.  Right now, the FDA’s number of inspectors, lab equipment, and computer facilities are not adequate to carry out the provisions of the Act. 


According to Dr. Allen, what the Act  does do is shift more responsibility to manufacturers to keep careful logs of their procedures and plan ways to avoid contamination hazards.  In addition, she explained, companies that are exporting food to the U.S. can register with the FDA.  Those that register are likely to try harder to keep their products safe because registration alerts the FDA to their existence. Furthermore, a company that registers must also file a report on their processes with the FDA. 


The Act also gives the FDA the power to order recalls on their own authority rather than having to rely upon the industry to voluntarily recall tainted products.  


Why does the  Food Safety Act focus on the FDA and not the USDA?


The USDA has better funding, so it is better able to  monitor the foods supply (meat, poultry, etc.) it is in charge of.  Also, the FDA handles about 80% of our food supply. Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter explains that the USDA requires every plant to have a HACCP (Hazard Analysis  and Critical Control Points) plan that looks at every step in their process,  the hazards that might be introduced at that step, and ways to avoid any risk to food safety. 


When will the new law go into effect?


Some provisions have gone into effect already.  Others will take more time to implement, and still others are dependent upon budgeting.


What imported products, if any, have pesticide levels above acceptable U.S. limits?


Food process engineer Dr. Timothy Bowser points out that the FDA has a pesticide-residue monitoring program.  Consumers can find out what specific imported products and which countries of origin have the most violations of U.S. law.   To see tables on this  information, click here


Should Americans worry about the safety of imported meat and poultry?


No.  The USDA, which regulates meat and poultry, has the power to refuse shipment of any imported goods that don’t pass inspection.  USDA inspectors also visit some foreign plants and hold foreign meat producers to the same standards as U.S. companies are required to meet. Only a few countries are allowed to export poultry to the U.S. and often it’s only cooked product.  As a result, foreign meat is almost as safe as domestic meat, according to Dr. Regenstein.


Will the Act have much effect upon imported cheeses?


Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks provides this answer: “The impact of the Act on cheese would be small. Generally, only premium cheeses are imported to the US. Only high quality, unique cheeses command enough price to be worth the cost of importation. Thus, only the aged and middle moisture cheese are generally imported. These cheese generally have more than 60 days of age on them by the time they reach retail, so they are pretty safe.


“The white high moisture cheese coming in from Mexico is the biggest concern. Currently, these cheeses must be made from pasteurized milk, but verification has been a problem. Tests are available to determine if the cheese milk was pasteurized, but this is not always done because there is insufficient funding to test each batch. Good importers require COA’s (certificates of analysis) with each shipment, so some information is available.”


The Food Safety Act would require that cheese and other foreign manufacturers have a verifiable HACCP program in place. This means that importers must verify that their foreign suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place to ensure safety, and the FDA will be able to accredit qualified third-party auditors to certify that foreign facilities are complying with U.S. food safety standards. Dr. Hicks concludes, “This would probably eliminate cheeses from cottage industries from coming into the United States because of the cost of verification.”


How safe are our imported fish and shellfish?


In 2008, Consumers  Union said the following: “Fish consumption is growing, and it is estimated that 83 percent of the seafood we eat is imported.  Of that, 21 percent comes from China and much of the rest from  developing countries in Asia and Latin America….We have considerable evidence that seafood imports from China pose significant safety risks.” Media coverage warned the public that imported fish were often raised in unsanitary conditions and then given   chemicals banned in the U.S. to counteract the contamination. In 2007 and 2008, there was much media attention focused on the question of whether our imported fish and shellfish were safe to consume.


However, there have been no major  recalls concerning  fish and seafood in recent years. Dr. Regenstein believes that conditions might have improved: “I just visited a fish processing plant in China that was better than anything I have seen in the U.S.,” he said. According to Regenstein, very little of  our imported seafood is contaminated although “trace residues of chemicals that are illegal in the U.S. but legal in other countries may show up because we now have the technology to detect  them.” 


Salmonella can be the result of unsanitary water or unsanitary handling by workers in the plant. However, when the fish is cooked to at least 145°F, the pathogens are killed.   


What specific imported foods do our site’s scientists consider risky?


Dr. Joe Regenstein:  “The main problem both in the U.S. and abroad is related to  agricultural products that are not eaten cooked.”


Dr. Clair Hicks:  “The white, high-moisture cheese coming in from Mexico is the biggest concern.”


Dr. Karin Allen: “There are a lot of recalls on imported dried fish, processed canned fish, and bottled fish pieces.”  [The cause is usually Clostridium botulinum spores, which can cause botulism, a serious, sometimes fatal, disease.]


Dr. Tim Bowser:  “I do not purchase and try not to eat spices, flavors and salts, and candies from unknown or unrecognized international manufacturers. These items are among those most commonly rejected by  the FDA for various reasons.”  


Dr. Catherine Cutter: “I avoid off-brand or no-name food products (that may be purchased at international grocery stores) with labels in languages I don’t understand.”


“If the system is working properly, then imports should be no riskier than domestic products,” says Dr. Regenstein.  Let’s hope the Food Safety  Modernization Act is properly funded so that our “global supermarket” becomes a safer place to shop.


Note: To read about scams associated with imported olive oil, click here.  To read about contaminated imported candy, click here.




Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science


USA  “U.S. food imports outrun FDA resources”


Chicago Tribune Food bill taking aim at imports”

Business section, December 21, 2010  p. 25 “Pesticide Monitoring Program FY 2007”  “Chinese Seafood Imports: Safety and Trade Issues”  “Questions and Answers on the Food Safety Modernization Act” “What Does the New Food Safety Law Mean to You?”  “FDA’s International Posts: Improving the Safety of Imported Food and Medical Products”










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