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Imported foods: Just how safe are they?

We don’t expect what we eat, at home or in restaurants, to send us to the hospital — or worse, to the cemetery.

But each year, the Centers for Disease Control reports, one in six Americans (48 million) gets sick from foodborne diseases, 128,000 end up in the hospital, and 3,000 die.

When an outbreak occurs, particularly one spread over multiple states, we may be momentarily concerned and stop buying whatever product is involved. But the memory fades and we don’t give food safety another thought until another episode happens.

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Increasingly, foodborne illnesses are traced to imported foods, which now constitute about 20 percent of America’s total food supply — including 50 percent of fresh fruit and 20 percent of fresh vegetables. Since the late 1990s, the amount of food imported has doubled. Now, more than three-fourths of the seafood we consume is imported, and nearly half the illness outbreaks from 2005 to 2010 were traced to seafood imports. Another 15 percent was from imported spices.

Culprits vary widely. Example, in 2011 people were sickened in widely separated states, New York to Georgia to Arizona, from salmonella-contaminated pine nuts from Turkey. Pomegranate seeds, also from Turkey, were an ingredient in a food product that caused hepatitis A in over 150 people across the nation. Cucumbers from Mexico sickened people in 18 states. And on and on…

Despite the large numbers of people who are sickened, hospitalized, and die due to contaminated food imports, only about 2 percent of these imports are checked for safety by federal inspectors.

The CDC says just a 10 percent reduction in foodborne disease contamination would keep 5 million Americans from getting sick each year, with a significant reduction in costs of medical treatment (costs related to just one death from E. coli 0157 infection can run as much as $7 million, it says).

Increasingly worrisome is the ever-larger amount of food coming into the U.S. from Asia, particularly China, where environmental standards can be lax to nonexistent and production methods are often highly questionable. Tainted milk products, rice, fish, vegetables, mushrooms — the list is long. A report on Chinese food processing plant inspections in 2011 showed more than half with failing safety grades.

Some 60 percent of imported seafood comes from Asian countries, with Vietnam, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, and Thailand having the most rejections for filth, pathogenic contamination, and unsafe drug/chemical residues.

Some improvement may be on the way as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law earlier this year. The Foreign Supply Verification rule section will require importers to insure that their foreign suppliers meet U.S. standards, with a shift toward prevention. But the vast scope of imports will likely mean that food safety will continue to be a concern for U.S. consumers.


TAGS: Outlook Agenda
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