The Unsafe Food Invasion

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[Curator's note: In this post, Marion Nestle offers up the latest food safety reports from the Government Accountability Office.]

Food Safety: FDA Has Begun to Take Action to Address Weaknesses in Food Safety Research, but Gaps Remain. GAO-10-182R, April 23, 2010 (23 pages).

Imported food makes up a substantial and growing portion of the U.S. food supply, with 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood coming from across our borders. ... In January 2007 GAO designated federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area needing urgent attention and transformation because of the federal government's fragmented oversight of food safety. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of roughly 80 percent of the U.S. food supply—virtually all domestic and imported foods except for meat, poultry, and processed egg products—valued at a total of $466 billion annually, as of June 2008.

Food Safety: FDA Could Strengthen Oversight of Imported Food by Improving Enforcement and Seeking Additional Authorities. GAO-10-699T, May 6, 2010 (20 pages).

In 2008, FDA inspected 153 foreign food facilities out of an estimated 189,000 such facilities registered with FDA. ... FDA estimated that it would conduct 200 inspections in 2009 and 600 in 2010. GAO previously identified several gaps in enforcement that could allow food products that violate safety laws to enter U.S. commerce. For example, FDA has limited authority to assess penalties on importers who introduce such food products, and the lack of a unique identifier for firms exporting food products may allow contaminated food to evade FDA's review.

As it has been saying for years, the GAO wants the FDA to ask Congress for statutory authority to:

    • Recall products identified as unsafe
    • Require companies to demonstrate that food ingredients are safe before using them
    • Require preventive controls (e.g. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point methods) by firms producing foods that have been associated with repeated instances of serious health problems or death

Note that the FDA does not have this authority now and must seek it from Congress. The food safety bill now before Congress does some of this, which is one reason why it should be passed. Note: the House passed the bill last August. Eleven months later, the Senate is still sitting on it. Not helpful.

Consumers Union has produced a video—starring Atlantic contributing editor Eric Schlosser—on why the Senate must pass the food safety bill, and right away.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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