What’s for dinner? An open call to the FDA to improve import inspections

Posted by Kathy Baylis on Jun 24, 2011

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Uncategorized)

In the shadow of the deadly EU e-coli outbreak, the FDA released a report on its plans to inspect the growing amount of imported food and drugs.  Imports have increased dramatically, with shipments growing 4-fold in the last decade.

Despite our large domestic agricultural industry, Americans rely on imported food.  The report notes that “between 10% and 15% of all food consumed by United States (U.S.) households is imported from abroad.  Nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables–and 80% of seafood–eaten domestically come from outside the U.S.” While we may have an image of scientific sampling of import shipments, as the NY times article notes, “currently less than one pound in a million of imported seafood even gets a visual inspection.”.

The report goes on to talk about developing more international cooperation and how the current inspection system is starved of resources.  Numerous authors have made the comparison between the FDA who is in charge of inspecting most imported food, and the USDA who has many more resources to inspect imported meat products.  Why does an imported steak get much less scrutiny if it comes from a foreign tuna than from a foreign cow?  While the lack of resources is real, and greater international cooperation is helpful, there are a number of things that the FDA could do to better target its few resources to import products that are truly a risk.

A couple of years ago, a few of us looked at US import refusal data and compared it to known risk factors and variables that could capture political influence (Baylis, K., A. Martens and L. Nogueira.  2009. “What drives import refusals?” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 91(5), 1477-1483. ).  While imported food can carry real risks, there is evidence that the FDA can get used as a political instrument to protect domestic interests (Vietnamese catfish anyone?).  We wanted to see what product and exporter characteristics led to a greater level of inspections and refusals.

I found pouring through the data telling. Import inspections and refusals are often triggered by red flags, known as “alerts”, that identify certain products and shippers that are perceived to be of concern.  Inspectors use these alerts as a way of targeting their efforts.  But three-quarters of the alerts in place in 2009 have been in place longer than 10 years, and more than one quarter were generated 20 years ago.  For example, a 1994 alert flagged cheese coming from the Azores as having been found to have microbial contamination three years earlier.  One rather hopes that in the intervening 20 years, Portuguese dairy processors have figured out the problem, but that alert is still active, presumably leading to more attention being paid to any cheese imported from these islands.  We saw evidence that old problems seemed to generate many more refusals than brand new exporters.  We also saw evidence that things like anti-dumping or other evidence of domestic protectionism led to higher refusals.  Thus, while risk variables did play a part, we found that political variables were also associated with higher levels of import refusals, which seems to say that energies could better be allocated to dealing with products risky to health, not those risky to domestic industry.  (I should note that we are currently looking at EU food import refusals and finding the same thing – so this is not just an American habit).

Last, as a complaint by a data geek, the refusal and alert data was collected and compiled in a way that made it incredibly difficult to use or to match against trade information or other country-level data.  So simply changing the way information is collected could go a long way to facilitating a better risk-management.  I am glad that the FDA is trying to improve the system and applaud their efforts to collaborate internationally.  That said, a few changes at home might go a long way.