Posted 1:00 AM Eastern
by NWV News, Jim Kouri
October 15, 2009
© 2008 NewsWithViews.com
Imported food makes up a substantial and growing portion of the U.S. food supply and, considering the health and safety concerns of keeping American's safe, Washington insiders seem oblivious to that part of protecting American citizens.
To ensure imported food safety, federal agencies must focus their resources on high risk foods and coordinate efforts, according to a report released on October 14 by the Government Accountability Office.
The report, submitted to the US Congress and obtained by NewsWithViews.com, assesses how the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service are addressing challenges in overseeing the safety of imported food.
It also assesses how the FDA utilizes resources by working with other entities, such as state and foreign governments, and attempts to determine how the FDA is using its Predictive Risk-Based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting system to oversee imported food safety.
US agriculture generates more than $1.5 trillion per year in economic activity and provides an abundant food supply for Americans and others. There are continuing concerns about the vulnerability of US agriculture to the deliberate introduction of animal and plant diseases by those wishing to harm American citizens.
"The big problem is money be spent to monitor food products being imported into the United States.
So far, the budget for food safety is minimal when compared to other government programs. For example, politicians push for vaccinating millions of Americans against what they characterize as a deadly flu epidemic, yet they do not seem concerned over a very real threat to all Americans -- contaminated food," said political strategist Mike Baker.
Federal agencies also have been conducting vulnerability assessments of the agriculture infrastructure; have created networks of laboratories capable of diagnosing animal, plant, and human diseases; have begun efforts to develop a national veterinary stockpile that intends to include vaccines against foreign animal diseases; and have created new federal emergency coordinator positions to help states develop emergency response plans for the agriculture sector. However, the United States still faces complex challenges that limit the nation’s ability to respond effectively to an attack against livestock.
CBP, FDA, and FSIS claim they have taken steps to address challenges in ensuring the safety of the increasing volume of imported food. For example, CBP maintains that the system importers use to provide information to FDA on food shipments; FDA electronically reviews food imports and inspects some foreign food production facilities to prevent contaminated food from reaching U.S. shores; and FSIS employs an equivalency system that requires countries to demonstrate that their food safety systems provide the same level of protection as the U.S. system.
However, gaps in enforcement and collaboration undermine these efforts. First, CBP's computer system does not currently notify FDA or FSIS when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports, although efforts are underway to provide this information to FDA for air and truck shipments.
"This is a problem we see with law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and other government entities," claims former police detective and Marine intelligence officer Sidney Frances.
"Whenever we see multiple government agencies involved in one single function, there will almost certainly be some kind of Snafu," he added.
This lack of communication may potentially increase the risk that unsafe food could enter U.S. commerce without FDA review, particularly at truck ports. Second, FDA has limited authority to ensure importers' compliance with its regulations. Third, CBP and FDA do not identify importers with a unique number; as a result, FDA cannot always target food shipments originating from high risk importers.
Finally, CBP faces challenges in managing in-bond shipments--those that move within the United States without formally entering U.S. commerce--and such shipments possibly could be diverted into commerce. FDA generally collaborates with select states and foreign governments on imported food safety. FDA has entered into a contract, several cooperative agreements, and informal partnerships for imported food with certain states, and some state officials told GAO that they would like to collaborate further with FDA on food imports.
However, citing legal restrictions, FDA does not fully share certain information, such as product distribution lists, with states during a recall. This impedes states' efforts to quickly remove contaminated products from grocery stores and warehouses. FSIS has begun to make available to the public a list of retail establishments that have likely received food products that are subject to a serious recall. FDA is also expanding efforts to coordinate with other countries.
In particular, through its Beyond Our Borders initiative, FDA is pushing the US government to station investigators and technical experts in China, Europe, and India, to provide technical assistance and gather information about food manufacturing practices to improve risk-based screening at U.S. ports.
According to FDA, inspectors will analyze food shipments using criteria that include a product's inherent food safety risk and the importer's violative history, among other things, to estimate each shipment's risk. A 2007 pilot test indicated that the system improved FDA's ability to identify products it considers to be high risk while allowing a greater percentage of products it considers low risk to enter U.S. commerce without a manual review.