- Risks associated with imported foods, which now make up 13 percent of the American diet, can result in severe health consequences. For instance, a 2003 hepatitis A outbreak was attributed to green onions imported from Mexico.
- There are high-profile examples of threats related to imported foods. Notable ones include the 2007 pet food incident where wheat gluten from China, contaminated with a toxic chemical, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of pets and tainted food fed to millions of chickens.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposes sweeping changes known as the Food Protection Plan, aiming to provide the agency with mandatory food recall powers, more funding, and the ability to collaborate directly with producers, importers, and foreign governments.
- Americans are more likely to encounter contaminants in imported foods than domestic ones. Reports mention pesticide violations in 6.1% of imported food samples compared to 2.4% of domestic ones. However, the inspection rate by the FDA hasn’t been able to keep up with the increase in food imports.
- Despite improvements in food safety measures both domestically and abroad, the system remains fraught with challenges. Therefore, collaborative efforts and decisive actions are necessary to ensure food safety.
A Single Encounter Transforming a Lifetime
Imagine a routine Sunday lunch at your local eatery, enjoying a bowl of salsa with your meal. This simple act in 2003 forever altered the life of Rich Miller. Unbeknownst to him, the salsa’s green onions imported from Mexico carried an unwelcome guest: hepatitis A.
Only days later, Miller found himself incapacitated. “It was like the worst case of flu that you could ever imagine,” he recollected. Diagnosed with severe fulminant hepatitis A, where the virus ravages the liver, this 57-year-old railroad superintendent soon found himself being whisked to a hospital in Pittsburgh for a liver transplant.
Subjected to a medically induced coma for a month, Miller returned home, frail and unable to work. He still grapples with mobility issues and neurological problems to this day. However, he considers himself fortunate. Four others, who also sampled the salsa and developed severe liver disease, did not survive. Tragically, this instance marked the worst hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history, affecting over 600 people around Pittsburgh.
This tale is one among many highlighting the risks associated with imported foods, which now make up 13 percent of the American diet, as per the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Unfortunately, there are high-profile examples of potential threats, including the 2007 tainted pet food incident and the stopping of suspicious food products from China.
The pet food fiasco, which gradually mushroomed into the largest pet food recall in U.S. history, involved exported wheat gluten from China contaminated with melamine, a toxic chemical. It was used as a food additive in over 100 brand names. This incident resulted in the deaths of hundreds of dogs and cats, with the exact figure never disclosed. Furthermore, it was revealed that the tainted surplus pet food fed up to 3 million broiler chickens that were later sold to restaurants and supermarkets nationwide.
A Global Issue
However, China isn’t the sole country contributing to American foodborne concerns. Dole Fresh Fruit Co., for instance, had to recall about 6,104 cartons of imported cantaloupes from Costa Rica following a Salmonella outbreak in 2007. The year before, there had been 15 reported cases of nonfatal scombroid fish poisoning linked to tuna steaks imported from Vietnam and Indonesia. Furthermore, a Salmonella outbreak in 2001 associated with Mexican cantaloupes resulted in two fatalities and affected 25 others across 15 states.
The Proposed Food Protection Plan
In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have proposed sweeping changes known as the Food Protection Plan. This plan calls for new regulations that would provide the agency with larger powers, including a mandatory food recall, more funding, and strengthened collaboration with producers, importers, and foreign governments to halt tainted food at the source. Currently, though, the introduction of the plan is contingent on Congressional action.
Increased Contaminants in Imported Foods
Various reports and findings confirm Americans are more likely to encounter contaminants in imported foods than in home-grown produce. For instance, a FDA report published in 2003 mentions pesticide violations in 6.1% of imported food samples compared to 2.4% in domestic products. Food imports to the U.S. have nearly doubled over the past decade, escalating from $36 billion in 1997 to over $70 billion in 2007. And yet, the inspections by the FDA at production sources or borders have struggled to keep pace.
Addressing Weaknesses Domestically and Abroad
While authorities are trying to rectify issues at their local level and the point of origin, the much-needed boost to the FDA inspection services continues to be a problem. Port inspections and collaborations with organizations and foreign governments to spot tainted food are crucial steps. Some improvements have been made, but the arena of food safety still presents a multitude of challenges.
Steps Forward, Yet Gaps Remain
Miller’s ordeal is a stern reminder of the intimate connection between what’s on our plates and what’s cultivated in fields across the globe. “Disease knows no boundaries,” he stressed. Inevitably, outbreaks will still occur. We need to focus our efforts on mitigating these instances and reducing their impact.