July 26, 2013

FDA proposes rules to ensure food from abroad is safe to eat

Only around 2 percent of imported food is inspected by the government when it enters.

By MARY CLARE JALONICK The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Chances are that about 15 percent of the food you eat – more if your diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables and cheese – comes from abroad, and the government is taking steps now to make it safer.

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The FDA proposed new steps Friday to ensure that imported fresh produce, cheeses and other foods, such as this Organic Antioxidant Blend, packaged under the Townsend Farms label, are safe. The Townsend Farms berry blend was linked to a hepatitis A outbreak.

The Associated Press / FDA

Margaret Hamburg
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Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg testifies on Capitol Hill in 2012.

The Associated Press

New rules proposed Friday by the Food and Drug Administration would make U.S. food importers responsible for ensuring that their foreign suppliers are handling and processing food safely. Imported fruit and cheese has been responsible for many recent outbreaks, including 153 recent Hepatitis A illnesses linked to a frozen berry mix sold at Costco last month as well as four deaths last year that were linked to listeria in Italian cheese.

Imported fruits or vegetables are also the top suspect in an ongoing outbreak of cyclosporiasis, a gastrointestinal infection that has so far sickened 321 people in 13 states.

Other illnesses in the last several years have been linked to imported papayas, mangoes and nuts and spices used as ingredients. An estimated 3,000 people die from food-related illnesses every year.

The proposed rules, required by a sweeping food safety law passed by Congress in 2010, are meant to establish better checks on what long has been a scattershot effort to guard against unsafe food imported from more than 150 countries. Only around 2 percent of imported food is inspected by the government at ports and borders.

The guidelines would require U.S. food importers to verify that the foreign companies they are importing from are achieving the same levels of food safety required in this country. The government estimates that the rules, which would also improve audits of food facilities abroad, could eventually cost the food industry up to $472 million annually.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg used the frozen berry illnesses, linked to pomegranate seeds from Turkey, as an example of an outbreak that could have been prevented if the new rules were in place. She said it illustrates the "growing complexity of the food supply."

FDA investigators had to look at berries from several different countries that were included in the mix before they zeroed in on the Turkish seeds as the probable source of the illnesses, she said.

Like rules for domestic farmers and food companies released earlier this year, the idea is to make businesses more responsible for the safety of the food they are selling or importing by proving they are using good food safety practices. They might do that by documenting basic information about their suppliers' cleanliness, testing foods or acquiring food safety audits. If they fail to verify the food is safe, the FDA could stop shipments of their food.

Currently, the government does little to ensure that companies are trying to prevent food safety problems but generally waits and responds to outbreaks after they happen.

Merrill Behnke of Seattle is a victim of the listeria outbreak caused by tainted Italian cheese and almost died after she bought some of the ricotta salata at Whole Foods. She was a new mom when she spent 16 days in the hospital last September and she says she still has some ongoing medical problems. The new rules, she said, are a long time coming.

"It is frustrating that foreign companies are able to send dangerous or contaminated food into our country with little repercussions," she said. "You can't live in a bubble, but you want to know that you are being protected and there are laws in place."

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