Americans are becoming too familiar with imported foodborne illnesses. Remember the tainted dog food from China and those salmonella-laced hot peppers shipped from Mexico? Now a virulent strain of E. coli is racing across Europe, possibly heading toward our shores.
We're not ready for this new strain, if it comes to that. The government bulkhead required to keep it out is weak.
As the threat of the European outbreak looms, consumers may find it hard to believe that U.S. officials aren't inspecting much of anything, let alone testing vegetable imports for E. coli. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approximately 15 to 20 percent of the American diet is imported, including half our fruit and the vast majority of our fish — and this stream of foreign-sourced food is rapidly escalating. But federal officials only inspect about 2 percent of imported food, and virtually none of the roughly 240,000 foreign food facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for export to the U.S.
A seemingly simple solution for consumers would be to avoid eating imported foods, but that's harder than you would think. Even if you wanted to, reading food labels is no sure way to discover a product's country of origin. Processed foods often include imported as well as domestic ingredients, without any country-of-origin labeling requirement. Hence, most consumers don't know when they're consuming an imported food.
Furthermore, threats to food safety usually aren't random. Some countries lack the necessary regulatory infrastructure to ensure proper facility upkeep. That was the case in 2007, when melamine, a Nitrogen-rich chemical usually used to make fertilizer and plastics, tainted vast quantities of dog food imported from China. Threats of bioterrorism constantly loom.
Luckily, as food globalization and the international outsourcing of goods and services become increasingly common, laws governing food imports can evolve. Lawmakers clearly considered the growth of imported food in the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) — a pillar of which was making our food safer. However, since that law's passage, Congress has placed a stranglehold on all food agency budgets. In an unfortunate Faustian compromise, Congress has opted to save on immediate costs by underfunding food import safety, at the risk of costly and preventable foodborne illness.
The FDA is anticipating such a tight budget that it's turning to the Walmart model to address this problem. Pending the budget to do so, the agency plans to hire hundreds of third-party certifiers to inspect overseas food facilities, including Bureau Veritas, a French company that currently advises Walmart on how to comply with U.S. safety standards.
Perhaps this particular relationship might be better left unfunded. The FDA shouldn't take any safety advice from an organization that sets its food safety standards for the purposes of competitive advantage rather than customer safety.
Let's not forget about the domestic budget cuts threatening meat and poultry safety. A reduced USDA budget means less money for inspectors. Some lawmakers say the solution would be to simply empower the industry to initiate its own "self-inspection" program. But consumer groups have harshly criticized the its unproven model for reducing foodborne pathogens.
Federal budget cuts aren't the only worry. State governments pick up some of the slack for the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, often serving as the front line in identifying the source of foodborne illness. The Minnesota Public Health Department, for example, cracked the case on two of the largest food recalls in history when it fingered peppers and peanuts as the culprits responsible for large-scale E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks. Unfortunately, cuts in the budgets for state public health agencies are putting an even greater strain on a system that already lacks adequate resources to monitor food safety.
Politicians are jumping on the "fiscal responsibility" train by talking about major budget cuts. But gambling with the nation's food safety shouldn't even be on the table.