Chinese imports not the worst

The Baltimore Sun

Black pepper with salmonella from India. Crabmeat from Mexico that is too filthy to eat. Candy from Denmark that is mislabeled.

At a time when Chinese imports are under fire for being contaminated or defective, federal records suggest that China is not the only country that has problems with its exports.

In fact, U.S. inspectors have stopped more food shipments from India and Mexico in the past year than they have from China, an analysis of data maintained by the Food and Drug Administration shows.

And despite China's much-publicized problems with contaminated seafood - including a temporary ban late last month on imports of five species of farm-raised seafood - federal inspectors refused produce from the Dominican Republic and candy from Denmark more often.

For instance, produce from the Dominican Republic was stopped 817 times last year, usually for containing traces of illegal pesticides. Candy from Denmark was impounded 520 times. By comparison, Chinese seafood was stopped at the border 391 times during the past year.

"The reality is, this is not a single-country issue at all," said Carl R. Nielsen, who resigned from the FDA in 2005, after 28 years. His last job was as director of the agency's Office of Regulatory Affairs Division of Import Operations and Policy. "What we are experiencing is massive globalization," he said.

The FDA database does not necessarily capture a full and accurate picture of product quality from other countries. Only one year of data is available on the agency's Web site, and FDA officials declined to provide more data without a formal Freedom of Information request, a process that can take months or years.

In addition, the FDA inspects only about 1 percent of the imports that fall under its jurisdiction. So the agency may miss many of the products that are contaminated or defective.

The FDA database also fails to disclose the quantity of products rejected, so it is impossible to know whether a box of cucumbers was refused or a shipload.

In cases of recurrent problems, the FDA may issue an import alert, which leads to additional scrutiny at the border. Last month, for instance, the FDA issued not only the import alert for the Chinese fish, but also import alerts for Mexican cantaloupes and basmati rice from India, among others.

Despite the shortcomings with the FDA database of import refusals, the available information makes clear that quality problems extend well beyond China, where officials recently admitted that nearly 20 percent of the country's products are substandard or tainted.

Critics say the FDA has not changed to deal with the flood of imports in the past decade as trade agreements have opened borders to products from around the globe.

The United States imported $1.86 trillion in merchandise last year, compared with $1.14 trillion in 2001, a 63 percent increase, according to Commerce Department records.

An FDA plan to revamp the way it inspects imports, called the Import Strategic Plan, was completed in 2003, but shelved because of budgetary constraints, several former FDA officials said. The plan would have focused more on finding potential risks in the food supply using vast quantities of information - from inspectors and manufacturers to foreign governments and consumers - to aim at problem imports.

"It basically got deep-sixed," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who resigned in 2005 and is now a part of a coalition that is advocating for more financing for the agency. "There was no capacity to cover as imports went up," he said.

Noting that the number of import shipments has vastly increased in the past 15 years, he said: "That's a huge, huge increase and they've lost people. These guys are going to war without enough troops. They don't even have guns."

Nancy M. Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, said the quality problems were the inevitable result of companies pursuing the cheapest possible products.

"As long as we are pushing for the lowest price all the time, driving our supply chain, you get more efficient," she said. "But at a certain point, there is no more efficiency, and you sacrifice quality."

Childs added that countries that produce the cheapest products often have little regulation and lackluster enforcement.

Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, agreed that the agency's system for reviewing imports was antiquated and needed to be changed.

The agency, he said, is working on a plan to revise how it monitors food safety, both for domestic food and imported, which should be released in the fall. The plan will depend on the FDA working with foreign governments and American companies to identify potential risks to the food supply before they reach ports in the United States.

"Fundamentally, starting at the border is not where we need to be," Acheson said.

The FDA inspects foreign shipments of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, animal drugs and some electronic devices.

From July 2006 through June of this year, agency inspectors stopped 2,723 shipments from China overall, followed closely by India, 2,620; Mexico, 1,876; and the Dominican Republic, 887.

Salmonella was the top reason that food was rejected from India, and it was found in products like black pepper, coriander powder and shrimp. "Filthy" was the primary reason food was stopped from Mexico, and the rejections included lollipops, crabmeat and dried chili.

Products from the Dominican Republic were stopped mostly because of pesticide residues.

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