THE MAGAZINE

Ingredients for Better Imports

By Matthew Harwood

From about the 1940s to today, a food revolution has occurred. Seventy years ago, most of the food Americans ate came from within 100 miles of their homes. Now, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 10 to 15 percent of the food Americans eat is imported, arriving from more than 300,000 foreign facilities in 150 different countries. Roughly 66 percent of all fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood consumed by Americans are imported, much of it from China, where recent incidents have raised questions about health and safety controls.

An estimated 48 million Americans get sick from food-borne illnesses each year, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, Michael Taylor, told The George Washington University School of Public Health in May. About 128,000 are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die, said Taylor. As more food travels longer distances it is being handled in facilities in countries that do not have the same food safety infrastructure or standards as the United States, multiplying the risks.

Incidents over the past few years show that the global food supply chain can be contaminated with a range of unhealthy threats—from pathogens to adulterants—that can sicken or kill. One of the worst examples of adulterated food occurred in 2008, when dairy powder exported from China was found to contain melamine, an industrial chemical used to manufacture plastic. Melamine artificially boosts protein levels of diluted milk, allowing unethical producers to stretch their product and make more money. Eventually, melamine was found in the food supply chains of some of the world’s biggest food companies—Mars Incorporated, Unilever, H.J. Heinz Company, Cadbury, and YUM! Brands, Inc.—triggering massive recalls of potentially affected products.

Incidents like these led Congress in December 2010 to pass a new food safety law, giving enhanced regulatory authority to the FDA, one of the primary agencies with responsibility for protecting America’s food supply. (The other major agencies include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has responsibility for meat, poultry, and egg products; the National Marine Fisheries Service; and the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Signed into law by President Barack Obama in January, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the first comprehensive overhaul of the country’s food safety system in more than 70 years. While most media coverage concentrated on the FDA’s power to recall contaminated foods, nowhere is the legislation more ambitious than in provisions regarding the safety of imported food. Indeed, the FDA describes FSMA as “a paradigm shift in the area of imports.”

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