With the increasing number of recalls in the news, many Americans are wondering if their food is safe. There is still a lot of room for improvement but overall, the U.S. food safety system works as well or better than most countries.
Initial Statement: Food grown and produced in the U.S. is as safe or safer than food grown outside the U.S.
One often hears the statement “The food supply of the United States is the safest in the world”. This is a hard statement to support in view of the fact that the food supply of the United States is comprised of both domestically produced foods and imported foods and ingredients from over 150 countries. Should we be concerned about the safety of foods imported into the U.S. or is imported food just as safe as the food we produce ourselves?
Foods produced and processed in the most industrially developed countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia/New Zealand and the European Union (EU) are similar in quality and safety. However, food produced, processed and exported from developing nations varies widely in quality and safety depending on the standards implemented and enforced by their governments or trade associations. The US imports approximately 78% of fish and seafood products and approximately 31% of all fruit, fruit juices and nuts. (5) These items are primarily imported from countries where sanitary standards may, or may not be up to US standards. One of the most common causes for rejection of seafood imports is “filth”. (4) This can create valid concerns about the safety of imports from developing countries.
Chile is a good example of a less developed country that has taken steps to protect their massive fruit and vegetable export market. They have established food safety programs based on and comparable to those of the US Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) (1). Chile has some of the most comprehensive GAP programs in the world. They include use of modern production and handling practices, strict control of pesticides, residue monitoring, state-of-the-art packaging, well maintained storage facilities and a constant emphasis on worker hygiene and sanitation.
Producing high quality and safe foods in every country, especially developing countries presents additional challenges. For example, developing countries may lack sanitary water supplies or be faced with extreme levels of pollution in their water supply. Neither the food safety infrastructure nor the educational programs regarding food safety and sanitation may be comparable to the US.
Programs like GAP and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems are widely used in the U.S. to help ensure safe transportation, production and processing practices in handling food but getting them established and implemented in developing countries exporting to the U.S. is often difficult. In addition to industry and regulatory commitment, all of these food safety programs depend on one paramount source to achieve implementation - revenue. With the current global recession, finding additional funding for safety inspectors and services is often put on the back burner.
For a country to produce, process and export safe high quality food, a stable government is essential. (7) Countries that have these standards - like the US, Canada, the EU nations, Australia and New Zealand - tend to base their consumer protection programs on three key areas: (1) food safety legislation, (2) regulations based on sound science and (3) enforcement of food laws-- particularly laws that control safety and sanitation. Producing safe food requires shared understanding among government agencies and clear communication between government and industry. A stable and responsible regulatory infrastructure certainly enhances the efforts to keep food safe - not always an easy task – even for highly developed countries. (7)
With the increasing number of recalls in the news lately, many Americans are wondering if their food supply is safe. The massive number of recalls involving products containing peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (largely recalled in 2008) underscores these trepidations. Food products and feeds produced with ingredients from China involving the use of melamine—a toxic nitrogen based chemical – added to the fears. American consumers turn on their TV and computers nightly to watch and read about these problems – and they worry - rightfully so. People got sick and people died from eating unsafe food.
In the weeks between May 1 and May 31, 2009, there were at least 20 recalls associated with food products announced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or USDA. Recalls of pistachio nuts, alfalfa sprouts and cantaloupe - all positive for Salmonella - voluntarily recalled by food companies – with no reported illnesses were announced (4). Some of these products came from countries like Chile (lemon pistachio) and some came from the U.S.
There are routinely recalls due to labeling and allergen issues such as unlabeled additions of milk and peanuts to food products. (4) Over $1.5 million of adulterated (filthy) food ingredients was seized by US Federal Marshals from the American Mercantile Corp of Memphis, Tennessee at the request of the FDA on May 7, 2009. (2) The most important point to remember is that there have been no reports of illness from these foods. (4) Our food safety system is working even though it is not perfect.
The US imports food from over 150 countries in the world - through approximately 300 ports of entry including land, sea and air. (5) Examination of data on imports refused by the FDA just in the month of April 2009 (3), showed that 250 were
rejected from China - mostly for melamine contamination. Other countries had sizable number of exports rejected in the month of April including India (122), Mexico (146), Japan (53), Korea (50), Viet Nam (48), EU countries (~133),
Canada (89), Chile (33) and Australia (7).
So, the FDA and USDA are keeping a lot of harmful food products out of the US. However, as diligent as their efforts are, it is a daunting task to keep everything that might be harmful from entering America. This is mainly due to the cost and lack of personnel required to police such massive shipments of food and the time and resources needed to test each shipment of food – some of which is highly perishable such as fruits and vegetables.
Proponents of the EU food system argue that the EU has higher standards of food safety than the US. Genetically modified foods, animal hormone use and standards for certain toxic chemicals like aflatoxins are more strict in the EU. However, the EU is hampered in establishing and enforcing both these and traditional food safety regulations since the 27 countries of the EU sometimes lack a shared understanding or uniformity in enforcement of regulations. (7) Food safety regulatory authorities in each EU country are not identical and the languages of the law. . not to mention translation. . often impede efforts in uniformity of enforcement. The EU thrives on a global flow of goods. (7) Anyone who tries to block that flow risks criticism and occasionally opposition by the “offended” country.
Through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States has the best and most transparent foodborne disease surveillance and documentation of foodborne illnesses in the world. The CDC has led the way in developing methods to identify and track foodborne disease outbreaks with their PulseNet USA system. (6) Initiated in 1996, PulseNet provides a means to identify DNA fingerprints of bacteria involved in foodborne illnesses. This data is provided to the CDC by public health departments. Once this data is collected and analyzed, the CDC and regulatory agencies alert the public to a pattern of illnesses. It was the CDC that sounded the warning that Salmonella was involved with the Peanut Corporation of America products. It was a timely warning indeed!
Thousands of illnesses and deaths have been avoided by this early warning system. Health Canada has joined the CDC and formed PulseNet Canada (2000-2003). PulseNet shares information freely between Canada and the US to track and identify disease outbreaks. The goal of the developers of these systems is to have an international warning system. PulseNet Europe was born in 2004. (6) Certain countries within the EU have excellent surveillance systems – primarily developed by independent and dedicated scientists but prior to 2005 the EU did not have a counterpart to the U.S. CDC (established in 1946). (7) The U.S. is fortunate to have an established agency like the CDC with over 50 years of experience in protecting public health and their early warnings help to protect the food supply.
Providing a high quality and safe food supply for Americans and other people of the world is a daunting task as the world’s population continues to grow unchecked. Furthermore, less and less people are involved in the production and processing of food products which means that food production and processing is centralized requiring lengthy transportation of food . Many of the foods US consumers enjoy travel an average of 1100 miles to reach dinner tables.
Large volumes of food are processed centrally and stored regionally. Foods and ingredients arrive in the US from over 150 countries using every imaginable type of transportation. Consumers expect variety, fresh foods, convenience, long shelf-life, optimal taste and nutrition. . .all for inexpensive prices. Keeping these foods safe while meeting consumer demands is a challenge!
Nonetheless, the USDA and the FDA work consistently with producers and processors in the U.S. and in other countries to set and enforce the standards that provide for safe high quality food. We help supply the world’s markets and give generously to the poorer nations often rift with famine and hunger. We set the standards and help monitor the way food is grown, processed, shipped and distributed around the world.
There is still a lot of room for improvement but overall, the U.S. food system works as well or better than most countries. Salmonella remains a constant threat but salmonellosis outbreaks are detected or prevented much more effectively than in the past decade.
Thanks to the efforts of the U.S. government, regulatory agencies, producers, the food industry and dedicated scientists, the food produced and processed in the US is as safe or safer. . .as that produced anywhere in the world and the U.S. is committed to continually making the food supply safer.
Chilean Fresh Fruit. About Our Fruit Food Safety Standards. (http://www.cffausa.org/dev/about_fruit/food_standards/index.php). Accessed 5/12/09.
FDA. Over $1.5 million of adulterated (filthy) food ingredients was seized by US Federal Marshals from American Mercantile Corporation of Memphis, TN http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2009/NEW02012.html. Accessed 5/21/09.
FDA. OASIS refusals by Country of Manufacture for April 2009. Food and Drug Administration. Operational and Administrative System for Import Support (OASIS) http://www.fda.gov/ora/oasis/4/ora_oasis_cntry_lst.html. Accessed 5/24/09.
FDA Recalls. (http://www.fda.gov/opacom/7alerts.html. Accessed 5/26/09
Jerardo, Alberto. The US Ag Trade Balance – More than Just a Number. US Economic Research Service. Amber Waves 2 (1): 36-41. 2004.
Swaminathan et al. Building Pulse-Net International: An interconnected system of laboratory networks to facilitate timely public health recognition and response to foodborne disease outbreaks and emergency foodborne diseases. Foodborne Pathogens and Disease 3 (1): 36-50. 2006.
Wong, Lo Fo et al. Food Contamination Monitoring and Food-Borne Disease Surveillance at the National Level. Proceedings of the 2nd WHO/FAO Global Forum on Food Safety Regulators. 20 pages. http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/008/y5871e/y5871e0n (accessed 5/26/09)HIDE