WASHINGTON (FNS) -- A proposal that the Food and Drug Administration be given authority to inspect food-safety systems abroad to boost the safety of fruit and vegetable imports has been criticized by many in the U.S. food industry as unnecessary.
Current inspection authority granted the FDA is adequate, said officials with Food Distributors International, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, the National Food Processors Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
John Block, president of the Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., disputed charges that imported food posed a health risk to U.S. consumers.
"It may be politically popular to attack or challenge other countries but there is no evidence to suggest that imported food products are less safe than the ones produced in the United States," Block said.
"FDA can detain products that upon examination appear to have been manufactured, packaged, labeled, stored or distributed under conditions that do not meet the U.S. standards," said Claire Regan, senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers of America said in a statement. "Sending inspectors into facilities in other countries would be expensive, while accomplishing nothing more than is already achieved at our borders."
The recommendation for offshore inspections was made by the General Accounting Office, the congressional research arm, in a report released earlier this month that documents inadequacies in the U.S. food inspection system.
The report said that federal agencies cannot assure that the growing volume of imported food, which currently comprises 45% of fruit and vegetables consumed here, is safe.
The FDA's reliance on port-of-entry inspections is "ineffective," the report said, while its inspection procedures are "vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous importers," who can choose friendly laboratories to show that their product is safe.
Also, fruit and vegetables can reach the market by the time the FDA decides to inspect shipments, and importers can ignore recall orders or substitute other goods for destruction or reexport, the report said.
Karen Brown, senior vice president of Food Marketing Institute here, said that it's government's job to ensure a safe U.S. food supply. She declined to comment, however, on the report's recommendation that the FDA be given authority to inspect processing plants of U.S. trading partners.
"We're not experts on government procedures but it seems that they have significant power," she said. "If better coordination and communication among agencies will ensure that food in the marketplace is as safe and wholesome as possible, we think that's great."
Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Food Processors Association, said that the food-safety system should be focused on the safety of food and not on its source.
"Both FDA and USDA already have the authority to halt imports of food products into the United States," she said in a statement. "Under current law, if a safety problem is identified regarding food products from a country, these products can be excluded from import until such time as their safety is assured. Our nation's regulatory agencies should fully use their existing authority for imported fruits and vegetables before expanding their authority and growing their bureaucracy."
While the Food Safety and Inspection Service has authority to require that exports of meat and poultry products have food-safety systems equivalent to the U.S. system, the FDA has no such authority governing fruits and vegetables. Shipments of imported food to the U.S. have doubled since 1992 and the FDA's coverage of food entries has declined from 8 percent in 1992 to 1.7% in 1997, the report said.
"FDA cannot realistically ensure that unsafe foods are kept out of U.S. commerce," the report said. "An equivalency requirement would allow FDA to shift the primary burden of ensuring safety to the exporting country while achieving better assurance that food production and processing is safe and sanitary."
FDI's Block disputed the equivalency recommendation and said it can be used arbitrarily and viewed as a non-tariff barrier by our trading partners.
A spokeswoman for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association said that instead of additional inspection authority, the government should be given more money for research to determine what causes the problems to begin with.
The trade group has come out avidly against a bill proposed by Rep. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., that would require countries exporting food to the U.S. meet U.S. safety standards. An association press release said that food-safety issues are not origin-specific, but instead relate to production, handling and distribution practices.
Tom Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., said that inspection procedures need to be implemented at the port of entry and should be consistent with those imposed on U.S. produce.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, released the GAO report and said she plans four hearings on food safety. She is exploring legislative solutions and said she favors giving U.S. inspectors authority to visit offshore food preparation and export facilities.