Food Safety

Safety of imported foods needs strengthening

November 2, 2009
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GAO says Federal agencies must refocus their efforts on high-risk foods

Imported food makes up a substantial and growing portion of the US food supply. To ensure imported food safety, federal agencies must focus their resources on high-risk foods and coordinate efforts, says a September report from the Government Accounting Agency (GAO) entitled, Agencies Need to Address Gaps in Enforcement and Collaboration to Enhance Safety of Imported Food.

Customs and Border Protection (CPB), FDA, and FSIS have taken steps to address challenges in ensuring the safety of the increasing volume of imported food. For example, CBP maintains the system that importers use to provide information to FDA on food shipments; FDA electronically reviews food imports and inspects some foreign food production facilities to prevent food in violation from reaching US shores; and FSIS employs an equivalency system that requires countries to demonstrate that their food safety systems provide the same level of protection as the US system, according to the report.

However, gaps in enforcement and collaboration undermine these efforts. CBP’s computer system does not currently notify FDA or FSIS when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports, although efforts are underway to provide this information to FDA for air and truck shipments. This lack of communication may potentially increase the risk that unsafe food could enter US commerce without FDA review, particularly at truck ports. FDA has limited authority to ensure importers’ compliance with its regulations, and CBP and FDA do not identify importers with a unique number. As a result, FDA cannot always target food shipments originating from high-risk importers. Finally, CBP faces challenges in managing in-bond shipments-those that move within the United States without formally entering US commerce-and such shipments possibly could be diverted into commerce.

According to GAO, FDA generally collaborates with select states and foreign governments on imported food safety. FDA has entered into several agreements and informal partnerships for imported food with certain states, and some state officials told GAO they would like to collaborate further on food imports. However, citing legal restrictions, FDA does not fully share certain information, such as product distribution lists, with states during a recall.

FSIS has begun to make available to the public a list of retail establishments that have likely received food products that are subject to a serious recall. FDA is also expanding efforts to coordinate with other countries. In particular, through its Beyond Our Borders initiative, FDA intends to station investigators and technical experts in China, Europe, and India, to provide technical assistance and gather information about food manufacturing practices to improve risk-based screening at U.S. ports.

GAO recommends, among other things, that FDA seek authority from Congress to assess civil penalties on firms and persons who violate FDA laws, and that the FDA commissioner explore ways to improve the agency’s ability to uniquely identify foreign firms. CPB and FDA generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations. FSIS provided technical comments only.

To learn more about or download the GAO Report GAO-09-873, visit GAO’s Website.

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