After a wave of recalls for imported food and products, federal regulators looking for solutions stopped in Baltimore yesterday to scrutinize crabmeat - once a local delicacy, now largely shipped in from overseas.
The secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, standing in Phillips Foods Inc. & Seafood Restaurants' refrigerated warehouse in Locust Point, leaned in to see a box of canned meat from Indonesia. Next to him stood the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, asking about quality tests.
They didn't expect to find anything wrong at Phillips, which imports millions of pounds of crabmeat and has a good record with the FDA. The visit was one of a series of trips across the country to gather information - and to reassure Americans spooked by a series of high-profile recalls, many involving China.
Problems in recent months include tainted pet food, seafood with traces of unapproved antibiotics, toothpaste contaminated with a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze and toys decorated with lead paint.
The trips are the work of a panel created by President Bush last month. Chaired by HHS Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, the group is charged with reviewing the way the nation imports products. They are to report back next month with a strategy for improvement.
The panel, which decided to visit Phillips to learn more about seafood imports, spent the morning at ports in New Jersey.
Leavitt, focusing on food issues in Baltimore yesterday, said companies as well as government inspectors would have to play a critical role in any efforts to make the import system safer. But he took pains to note that he doesn't believe it's a system in disarray.
"The American people enjoy the most safe food supply in the world," he said. "It's not perfect, but it's the safest in the world."
Nancy Childs, chairwoman of the department of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said recent problems are a result of the globalization of the food supply. It's not just China, she said: Developing nations don't have the quality controls U.S. consumers expect, and it takes time to get them in place.
"We've always had imported foods, but they've tended to be more from developed nations," she said.
"In pursuit of lower costs, and sometimes in pursuit of growing seasons, we've been sourcing more of our foods and ingredients to developing nations," Childs said.
In the case of crabmeat, increasing imports are driven by low yields locally.
The FDA, which has fewer employees now than it did a decade ago, can't properly deal with the shift in food production, said Carol Tucker-Foreman, a food policy expert at the Consumer Federation of America.
The FDA looks at only 1 percent of the imported food and products under its purview, she said - unlike the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects every box of imported meat and poultry that comes into the country.
Illnesses from food imports have cropped up since at least the early 1990s, but congressional hearings at the time went nowhere, Tucker-Foreman said. The issue seems to her to be growing more severe, but she's skeptical that a blue-ribbon panel will have any more success at prompting real change. The former Carter official thinks the country ought to create an agency whose sole purpose is food safety and give it enough money to get the job done.
At Phillips yesterday, the federal regulators said the key is collaboration between government and the private sector. They noted that Phillips, which buys almost all of its crabmeat and fish from overseas, takes a hands-on approach with the products long before they arrive at the Port of Baltimore to be turned into crab cakes, soup and other dishes.
"We own our own facilities offshore," said Aden A. King, Phillips' vice president of special projects and government affairs. "So we control the raw material. It has our name on it. ... We have a vested interest in what goes in that product."