Why the US imports tainted food that can kill you
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This week the CDC reported that at least 47 people were stricken with Salmonella, with one death, likely linked to papayas imported from Mexico. In the summer of 2016 came reports of hepatitis A tainted scallops sickening 292 in Hawaii. In that outbreak two died of liver failure complications. And, also in 2016, 143 people, mostly in Virginia, were also stricken with hepatitis A. This time the culprit was hepatitis A-tainted strawberries imported from Egypt. 

While most food we consume is still produced in the United States, we rely on imports for some of our most nutritionally important but more risky commodities. And, imported food is increasingly taking a larger “bite” out of our food consumption. We now import over 90 percent of our seafood, 50 percent of our fresh fruit and 20 percent of our vegetables. Canada, Mexico, China and India are our top food trading partners. In 2014, we imported nearly $50 billion of food from just those four countries. Imports from all countries have increased, and that is especially true for China and India.

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In 2011, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), one of the few, and perhaps the last, bi-partisan pieces of legislation. A large coalition of food industry groups and consumers agreed that increased scrutiny of imported food was good for the health and confidence of consumers and the economic well-being of the U.S. food and agriculture industries, which were competing in a global economy.

 

FSMA’s Foreign Supplier Verification Program for Importers mandates that the 88,000 U.S.-based importers verify that foreign food suppliers are adhering to the same FDA rules that domestic food suppliers are required to comply with. FDA regulators are required to oversee that the importers are in compliance, but Congress has not seen fit to adequately fund the program. This “unfunded mandate” is bound to fail without adequate oversight putting pressures on importers to assure that the foreign food suppliers are meeting food safety standards to keep Americans safe and keep the food production field level between producers. 

Under FSMA Congress also required that the FDA double foreign inspections every year for five years from 2010. FDA is inspecting only about 2,500 foreign food suppliers today. The FDA should be inspecting nearly 20,000. However, once again the “unfunded mandate” by Congress is thwarting FSMA’s intent and threatening the safety of the food our families eat. Congress needs to step up and put its money where its mouth is. 

U.S. farmers, suppliers and manufacturers, not only supported the enactment of FSMA, but have since absorbed new rules and regulations impacting how they grow and verify the safety of our domestic food supply. The cost of domestic compliance is significant. The reality is that by Congress ignoring the need for funding for importer verification and foreign inspections, we are making the food safety playing field uneven for complying U.S. businesses. 

Supporting your local farmer means funding food safety for imports. Food safety is important to U.S. consumers and it is also important to the U.S. farmers, suppliers and manufacturers who supported FSMA. Not adequately funding FDA’s international oversight puts U.S. businesses at a competitive disadvantage and certainly will not make American farming great again.

 As a lawyer who has represented thousands of victims of foodborne illnesses over the last 25 years, I have seen the devastation that that can be caused by pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. I have been to funerals and have watched children struggle in ICU’s.

Our government estimates that these pathogens cost the U.S. consumer some $55 billion a year. And, this amount does not even come close to the business losses from recalls and stock price devaluation. 

As of 2017, FDA had received only about half of the $583 million increase in base funding that the Congressional Budget Office said was needed to fund FSMA implementation. By far the biggest FSMA funding gap is in the import program, and especially for inspection of foreign facilities and other forms of overseas presence to protect American consumers and food producers. President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would actually cut FDA's food safety funding by $83 million, which would be a catastrophic step in the wrong direction.

Spending money on food safety is smart, and spending money making sure that the imported foods we consume are not tainted with a pathogen that can kill you child or ruin our farmers is even smarter. 

Bill Marler is a Food Safety Lawyer based in Seattle.  He writes the award winning MarlerBlog Follow him on Twitter @bmarler


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