NOBULL: Foreign Food Inspections on Decline as Illnesses From Imported Goods Rise

Foreign Food Inspections on Decline as Illnesses From Imported Goods Rise


Published: May 7, 2013

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Inside a warehouse near the Canadian border, boneless hams bound for Philadelphia are coming off a tractor-trailer from Toronto under the gaze of a federal food inspector. Each week, about 20 of the 150 food trucks from Canada are rejected because of paperwork problems or contaminated meat.

United States Canadian Border Inspection Association

Trucks at a meat inspection facility near the Canadian border.

United States Canadian Border Inspection Association

Inspectors found a shipment of meat spilling onto the floor of a trailer in May 2012.

United States Canadian Border Inspection Association

The Food and Drug Administration, which inspects everything but meat and poultry, is struggling to find the money to inspect foreign foods under a new food safety law.

While Congress spared meat and poultry inspections by the Agriculture Department from the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, inspections at foreign food factories have been in decline because of years of budget cuts, and border inspections like this one in New York may be eliminated.

The Food and Drug Administration, which inspects everything but meat and poultry, is struggling to find the money to inspect foreign foods under a new food safety law that Congress did not support with enough funds. The Obama administration’s 2014 budget calls for an increase in agency financing, but the most money would come from fees that the food industry and Congress oppose. Lawmakers in March did approve an additional $40 million in one-time financing for the agency to put the new law into effect, but food safety experts say more money will be needed.

The upheavals in government food inspections are occurring as Americans are biting into more and more foreign food and the rate of illness from imported food is rising. Just last month, a salmonella outbreak was traced to Mexican cucumbers that sickened at least 73 people in 19 states. In just the past two years, major food poisoning outbreaks from salmonella bacteria have been linked to imported foods, including Turkish pine nuts, Mexican papayas and cantaloupes from Guatemala. Last year, 2.5 million pounds of contaminated beef from Canada made it into American supermarkets before additional shipments were caught at the border.

Dr. Richard Raymond, a former under secretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department in President George W. Bush’s administration, said the decline in inspections was risky.

“We tried to do inspections every year, because if you don’t, people cut corners,” Dr. Raymond said. “The decline in in-country inspections appears to be a casualty of tough budgetary times.”

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an average of six and a half outbreaks a year from foreign foods between 2005 and 2010, more than double the annual rate of infection between 1998 and 2004. And the number of outbreaks caused by imported food could be far higher because the origins of many foods are not always known, said Hannah Gould, an epidemiologist at the agency.

Food safety experts like Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety,” said the rise in illness linked to imported foods could be attributed directly to the lack of vigilance by government regulators.

“The agencies responsible for food safety simply don’t have the resources to inspect all the food that is entering the United States each year,” Ms. Nestle said.

The Agriculture Department, whose foreign inspection budget has declined 18 percent since 2010, inspected food plants and the safety programs in just 10 countries last year, down from 32 four years ago, according to agency documents. The department said it would not inspect every exporting country each year but planned to focus on those with a history of food safety problems.

Under a pilot project, certain Canadian plants would be allowed to ship meat directly to food processors in the United States, bypassing border inspections, the result of a recent trade agreement. Government inspections would occur at the processing plants in the United States, officials said.

In an e-mail, Richard McIntyre, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department Food Safety Inspection Service, denied that any of the changes were related to budget cuts or trade pressures. He said the agency was taking a more “risked-based approach” by concentrating on problem-prone countries. Nations like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have had relatively good food safety regulations, will be inspected every two or three years.

But food safety advocates and some lawmakers are skeptical.

“This policy change puts the health of customers at risk,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, who wrote a letter to the White House and the Agriculture Department seeking information about the decline in inspections overseas and the trade agreement with Canada.

Neither has responded, she said.

It is the plan to eliminate meat inspections at the border that most worries Wally Piatkowski, the operator of the border facility here in Niagara Falls. As he watches inspectors open boxes and select slices of meat to test, he shares photos he has taken over the past year of meat shipments next to toxic chemicals, beef with fecal contamination and unpackaged meat spilling off the back of a truck.

Last year, government inspectors in Montana stopped a shipment of beef tainted with E. coli from a Canadian processing company, leading to one of the largest food recalls in Canadian history.

“That should have served as a wake-up call for these plans to eliminate border inspections,” Mr. Piatkowski said. “At the border, it is guaranteed 100 percent that that meat is going to be destroyed or sent back to Canada and has zero chances of entering the food supply.”

Two years ago, after one of the worst salmonella outbreaks sickened dozens of people, President Obama signed a food safety law that gave the F.D.A. greater powers and required more inspections of imported foods and foreign food-processing plants.

But the law provided no additional funds for inspectors. The new law makes foreign companies responsible for producing food by the same sanitation and hygiene standards as the United States. The F.D.A. would certify private inspectors paid by the companies to conduct food safety checks and turn over their reports to the agency.

“We are obviously never going to be able to inspect all the food that comes into the country on our own; we just don’t have the resources,” said Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the F.D.A. “The new law gives us the means to leverage our resources by working with industry and foreign governments and suppliers to ensure the safety of globally traded food.”

Currently, the F.D.A. inspects just 2.3 percent of the 10.4 million annual shipments of imported food because of a lack of resources. Almost every year, the agency’s inspectors have visited 1,000 of the more than 250,000 foreign food plants that ship to the United States.

David Acheson, a former F.D.A. associate commissioner for foods, said the agency had tried, without success, to get approval for additional staff but that Congress had balked at a price tag of $3 billion a year. So the agency was forced to rely on private inspectors.

“It was this or do nothing,” said Mr. Acheson, now a partner specializing in food safety at the Leavitt Partners law firm in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Acheson said he believed that the approach could work. “But the key is if F.D.A. is going to have the necessary funding to provide the oversight it needs,” he said. “In this era of tight budgets and efforts to cut spending, that’s an open question.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 7, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the law firm where David Acheson is a partner. It is Leavitt Partners, not Levitt Partners.