Washington: Black pepper with salmonella from India. Crabmeat from Mexico that is too filthy to eat. Candy from Denmark that is mislabelled.
At a time when Chinese imports are under fire for being contaminated or defective, US records suggest that China is not the only country that has problems with its exports.
In fact, US inspectors have stopped more food shipments from India and Mexico in the last year than they have from China, an analysis of data maintained by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows.
China has had much-publicized problems with contaminated seafood—including a temporary ban late last month on imports of five species of farm-raised seafood—but US inspectors refused produce from the Dominican Republic and candy from Denmark more often.
For instance, produce from the Dominican Republic was stopped 817 times last year, usually for containing traces of illegal pesticides. Candy from Denmark was impounded 520 times.
By comparison, Chinese seafood was stopped at the border 391 times during the last year.
Salmonella was the top reason that food was rejected from India, and it was found in products such as black pepper, coriander powder and shrimp. “Filthy” was the primary reason food was stopped from Mexico.
“The reality is, this is not a single country issue at all,” said Carl Nielsen, who resigned from FDA in 2005, after 28 years. “What we are experiencing is massive globalization,” he said.
The FDA database does not necessarily capture a full and accurate picture of product quality from other countries. For one thing, only one year of data is available on the agency’s website, and FDA officials declined to provide more data without a formal freedom of information request, a process that can take months, if not years.
In addition, FDA inspects only about 1% of the imports that fall under its jurisdiction. So the agency may miss many of the products that are contaminated or defective. The FDA database also fails to disclose the quantity of products that are refused, so it is impossible to know whether just a box of cucumbers was refused or a shipload.
In cases of recurrent problems, FDA may issue an import alert, which leads to additional scrutiny at the border. Last month, for instance, FDA issued not only the import alert for the Chinese fish, but also import alerts for Mexican cantaloupes and basmati rice from India.
Rafael Laveaga, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said the number of food safety problems from Mexican imports was minuscule given the huge volume of trade.
He said that Mexican food products were scrutinized more thoroughly since they arrived by road transit, rather than by ship or airplane.
Banarshi Harrison, minister of commerce at the Indian embassy, said India had recently strengthened its food safety laws. He said contamination of spices and pickles might occur on occasion because they were processed by many small manufacturers. “There is really no evidence of a systematic problem for any particular product,” he said.
Food safety officials from the Dominican Republic and Denmark could not be located for comment.
Despite the shortcomings with the FDA database of import refusals, the available information makes clear that quality problems extend well beyond China.
Critics say FDA has not changed to deal with the flood of imports in the last decade, as trade agreements have opened up borders to products from across the globe.
The US imported $1.86 trillion (Rs75 trillion) in merchandise last year compared with $1.14 trillion in 2001, a 63% increase, according to commerce department records.
An FDA plan to revamp the way it inspects imports, called the import strategic plan, was completed in 2003, but shelved because of budgetary constraints, several former FDA officials said.
The plan would have focused more on finding potential risks in the food supply using vast quantities of information—from inspectors and manufacturers to foreign governments and consumers—to aim at problem imports.
“It basically got deep-sixed,” said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner. “There was no capacity to cover as imports went up.”
Noting that the number of import shipments has vastly increased in the last 15 years, he said: “That’s a huge, huge increase and they’ve lost people. These guys are going to war without enough troops. They don’t even have guns.”
David Acheson, FDA’s assistant commissioner for food protection, agreed that the agency’s system for reviewing imports was antiquated and needed to be changed.
The agency, he said, was currently working on a plan to revise how it monitored food safety, both for domestic food and imported one, which should be released in the fall.
FDA inspects foreign shipments of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, animal drugs and some electronic devices.
From July 2006 through June of this year, agency inspectors stopped 2,723 shipments of all such items from China, followed closely by India, 2,620; Mexico, 1,876; and the Dominican Republic, 887.
But China sends more products into the US than any of those countries, at least in terms of the dollar value.
In 2006, for instance, China shipped $288 billion in merchandise to the US, compared with $198 billion from Mexico, $22 billion from India and $5.3 billion from the Dominican Republic, according to records.