As we have become a nation of aspirational gourmets, we like to import our coffee beans, cheeses and wines.
We want them to be exotic, connoting adventure and an appreciation for the extraordinary. Thanks to globalization, an increasing number of less-fancy foods are imported, too. But there is a problem with this bounty.
We want to eat well and not die of food poisoning.
Two-thirds of fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood are imported into the United States. But a mere 2 percent of food imports is inspected at ports as they enter the country.
That’s where the federal government can help. On July 26, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed new rules that are intended to increase the safety of imported foods.
In announcing the rules, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said: “Many of the most vulnerable commodities are coming from countries with less-mature systems in terms of regulatory oversight and farming practices. This is an opportunity to help build regulatory capacity and improve safety standards.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports recent examples of food-borne illnesses from imported foods include pomegranate seeds from Turkey that were used in a berry mix and caused a hepatitis A outbreak that sickened more than 150 people and cucumbers from Mexico that sickened 84 people in 18 states from a salmonella outbreak.
The rules will require importers to guarantee that their products meet the same standards as domestically produced goods. It allows the FDA to accredit third-party auditors in other countries to certify the safety of high-risk imported foods or the foreign facilities from which they come.
Thus companies are motivated to reassure worried consumers that they have prevented contaminated foods from entering the country, instead of responding to problems after an outbreaks.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, which support the draft rules, urged swift implementation with limited exemptions and sufficient funding.
“In an increasingly globalized food supply, the new standards will help to level the playing field for American businesses, farmers and food processors,” Pew said in a statement. “The announcement is also good news for consumers who have suffered from poor safety standards and the delayed release of stronger rules.”
Imports have been responsible for eight of 19 reported multi-state food-related illness outbreaks since 2011, when the FDA’s landmark Food Safety Modernization Act was passed, according to the CDC. Food-borne illnesses are estimated to kill 3,000 people in the United States every year.
Consumer and industry groups praised the rules. These, and another set regarding domestic food producers, are open for comment for 120 days. Then they will be implemented.
This is not a nanny-state effort or government intrusion or regulation run amok. It’s a serious and necessary step to protect public health. These rules make sense and should be approved, pronto.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.