FDA inspector
FDA food inspections rely a great deal on human senses. Image: Deepwater Horizon Response/Flickr/CC BY-ND

The recent listeria outbreak from cantaloupe is only the most recent incident of tainted food being distributed to the U.S. public. Even more disturbing is the tiny fraction of imported food that actually makes it to inspection by the Food and Drug Administration. As imports increase faster than federal resources, the concern for risks may become more significant.

Difficult to track domestically

In a Huffington Post article addressing the recent cantaloupe scare, Sherri McGarry, a senior adviser in the Food and Drug Administration, cited the way food is transported and delivered, which can involve a half-dozen stops or more between farm and retailer. This makes it difficult to track and prevent all tainted food from getting to the consumer’s table.

“The food chain is very complex,” said McGarry. “There are many steps, and the more steps there are, the harder it can be to link up each step to identify… the common source.”

Globalization increases imports

But if following the trail of domestic foods is so difficult, how much more difficult must it be when that food is imported from around the world? According to the FDA, 24 million shipments of food will will arrive at the nation’s ports in 2011. That is up from 6 million in 2001.

FDA unable to keep pace

In a recent report, the FDA addressed the problem:

“Despite… recent improvements, the FDA does not -— nor will it —- have the resources to adequately keep pace with the pressures of globalization… It would be impossible… without a substantial increase in resources or a complete overhaul in the way it operates.”

From 2001 to 2009, the number of FDA inspectors remained constant at about 1,350 nationwide. More were added starting in 2009, and now they number about 1,800. But even at that, the number falls far short of what is needed to inspect all imports. In 2010, only about 2.06 percent of food-related imports were inspected. That number is expected to drop to 1.59 this year. In 2012, that figure is expected to go down even more, to only 1.47 percent.

PREDICT the risk

Which shipments will and will not be inspected is determined, in 70 percent of inspection locations, by computer software called the Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting, or PREDICT. The program analyzes many factors, such as history of the manufacturer, weather patterns and what lab data is available to determine which shipments are at the greatest risk for contamination. At that point, often only those rated with the highest risk factor receive further inspection.

Reliance on human senses

Often, those follow-up inspections rely solely on human sensory input — smell, sight, touch and taste — for the next round of cuts. One of those inspectors, Steve Angold, described the process on NBC’s “Today” show:

“It’s either pass or fail. Ocean grimy smells would be passing. Even stale or fishy odors would be passing.” If he encounters a smell like turnips or cabbage, however, Angold said, it is likely spoiled.

“The worst ones are fecal.” Angold continued. “Some people refer to it as baby diapers. I don’t have kids, so …”

Sources

MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44701433/ns/health-food_safety/t/flood-food-imported-us-only-percent-inspected/#.TonXkGWP-_0
Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/03/farm-to-plate-food-outbreaks_n_991858.html
Huliq: http://www.huliq.com/10473/only-2-percent-food-imports-inspected-fda
FDA: http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OC/GlobalProductPathway/default.htm

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