It's a tough time to be an FDA inspector. Stung by contamination scandals that have gotten progressively worse as the year has worn on, Chinese exporters have almost single-handedly exposed the cracks in our nation's import inspection processes, which the notoriously underfunded organization has had few means to repair.
One of the most recent developments was an investigative report last week by the Associated Press that indicated at least 1 million pounds of seafood from China had been served in U.S. restaurants and supermarkets during the past year without being inspected, despite an active Food and Drug Administration “import alert” that was in place before the June quarantine order. FDA employees recently told Congress that with only 450 staff members charged with screening more than 20 million shipments of imported food and medical devices annually, some container trucks were bound to slip through the cracks.
The Bush administration has responded by creating a cabinet-level post headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to oversee the safety of all U.S. imports. Ongoing talks began with Chinese officials in late July, and Leavitt has said he expects the two countries to agree on safety pacts for food, animal feed, drugs and medical devices by December. Meanwhile, the FDA two weeks ago announced new voluntary standards for state-level food safety programs that it hopes will ultimately integrate inspections at the federal and state level, fixing some of the problems in the system.
“It's a favorable response by the administration,” said Craig Henry, chief operating officer for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, noting that when one considers the volume of food imports that have been coming into the United States for years, the country still has an exceptional food safety record.
When asked whether consumers should be troubled that only about 1% of food imports are inspected, Henry stated the obvious: Even with a massive new influx of funding, the agency still wouldn't be able to check everything.
“Looking at percentages is important, but we also have to balance the obvious limitations that inspection services have, whether it's the FDA or the [U.S. Department of Agriculture], in terms of manpower and financial resources. Even if you took our current funding and doubled it, you'd still only be able to check 2% to 3% of imports.”
The immediate concern for retailers and suppliers, though, is the way that these failures have given rise to massive consumer sentiment in favor of USDA country-of-origin labeling. Industry groups have managed to stave off implementation of COOL for produce and meats for five years now, arguing that any food sold in a U.S. supermarket should be equally safe and federally approved for sale. As such, they say the labels are essentially a marketing claim, which if enforced by threats of government audits, inspections and unnecessary product seizures, will place an unfair financial burden on retailers and suppliers.
It's an entirely reasonable argument, industry sources say, adding that if the FDA was better funded and had more than 450 inspectors monitoring everything edible or medical that is imported to the United States, there might still be an opportunity here for food retailers and suppliers to work with the government on something more constructive than fending off consumer outrage. But as reported last month in SN, 92% of respondents to a recent Consumer Reports poll said they are in favor of mandated labels.
“It's a fundamental right of the consumer to know where their food came from,” said Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets. “Our shoppers have wanted to know this information for years, and we've responded to what they want.”
Hardly a retailer to shy away from controversial topics, PCC recently announced that it would become 100% COOL compliant by the end of this month, and issued a press release arguing that the move had not increased costs at the eight-store natural food cooperative.
Noting that the company was able to continue selling fresh spinach during last year's E. coli outbreak, thanks to its relationship with regional growers, Bialic argued that knowing where a product is from is integrally related to its safety.
“We knew what state and what farms our [spinach] was coming from,” she explained. “It's a traceability issue. It's not that foods grown in the United States are necessarily going to be safer, but having a country-of-origin label, or having a paper trail provided by organic certification, provides traceability, and that enhances our ability to respond to problems in the food supply much more readily.”
As a small chain that already placed an emphasis on local and regional sourcing, PCC enjoys several advantages in this regard. But regardless of how valid industry complaints may be regarding the cost of implementing COOL, the news this year has alarmed a lot of consumers. And right now, most just want the assurance that someone knows where the food came from and can vouch for its safety.
At Richmond, Va.-based Ukrop's, for example, director of meat and seafood Alan Warren noted that his departments had been getting a lot of calls this year about import safety issues.
“We've gotten a lot of calls about the seafood especially,” Warren said. “We carry one shrimp item from China, and of course we checked on that right away.”
As Warren knew, the company's supplier already had a program in place to independently verify that every single container of imported shrimp was clean and free of questionable materials, including banned chemicals and antibiotics. To reassure Ukrop's shoppers, Warren simply posted a letter from their supplier that explained these processes.
“We removed the product from sale for a few days, until we could post that letter,” he said.
“We've reassured all of the customers that have called that we do check all of our products, and we make sure that all of our suppliers are following our [safety] guidelines.”
The Food Marketing Institute, meanwhile, is working with various industry and government authorities to develop a set of recommendations for improving the speed of food recalls. FMI's “Grocery Shopper Trends 2007” report found that only 66% of consumers describe themselves as “completely” or “somewhat” confident in the safety of supermarket food.
“Part of the reason we think consumer confidence has fallen is because they're watching many of these recalls take weeks or even months to resolve,” Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI, told SN in an earlier interview.
While the scope of these problems may seem dispiriting to the average consumer, China certainly wants to remain in good standing as a U.S. trading partner, and it does appear that progress is being made.
“I think things are rapidly moving in the right direction,” said Warren, referring to the recent FDA quarantine of Chinese seafood, as well as Secretary Leavitt's ongoing talks with China. “It's certainly good that the FDA is adopting stricter guidelines to emphasize to foreign countries what we won't accept here.”