Monday, April 16, 2007

A Contamination Risk of Imported Food?

Ever since the discovery of contaminated wheat gluten from China that led to the deaths and illness of thousands of pets, the question has arisen whether the same kind of thing could happen with imported human food.

Some reporting today from the Associated Press suggests it could:

Just 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables, fruit and other foods are inspected — yet those government inspections regularly reveal food unfit for human consumption.

Add to that the contaminated Chinese wheat gluten that poisoned cats and dogs nationwide and led to a massive pet food recall, and you've got a real international pickle. Does the United States have the wherewithal to ensure the food it imports is safe?

Food safety experts say no.

With only a minuscule percentage of shipments inspected, they say the nation is vulnerable to harm from abroad, where rules and regulations governing food production are often more lax than they are at home.

"FDA doesn't have enough resources or control over this situation presently," said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, which works with industry to improve safety.

Last month alone, FDA detained nearly 850 shipments of grains, fish, vegetables, nuts, spice, oils and other imported foods for issues ranging from filth to unsafe food coloring to contamination with pesticides to salmonella.

Each year, the average American eats about 260 pounds of imported foods, including processed, ready-to-eat products and single ingredients. Imports account for about 13 percent of the annual diet.

How did the melamine wind up in the wheat gluten [in the pet food]? Investigators still don't know.

The FDA and the USDA have adopted a "risk-based" inspection philosophy, focusing on specific foods, sources or producers that they believe represent the largest potential risk to the public's health.

"We have better control than we did a few years ago but it is largely the responsibility of the importer to make sure those products are safe," said Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's top veterinarian.
For local homeland security professionals, this is mostly a question of mitigation. It's the job of USDA and FDA to prevent the importation of contaminated food, and if they don't stop it at the border, local communities would have to deal with local effects. Recalling that the DHS Inspector General recently reported that public panic is a likely result of a major food contamination incident, it's worth giving some thought to this:
Commentators on the subject have observed that an adverse food sector event could also reduce state and local governments’ ability to maintain order and deliver essential services. A major food contamination event could engender public panic on a local or mass scale, depending on the affected food product and population, and media coverage of the incident.
(Also see this post for my summary of the report.)

Questions for local homeland security professionals include:
  • What level of collaboration is there among local public health agencies, healthcare providers, and other local authorities (e.g., elected officials, law enforcement)?
  • What healthcare resources are available?
  • What communication plans are in place?
  • How can local authorities maintain the public's confidence?
  • Does everyone know their role in the event of a public health emergency?

A lot of these questions are relevant to other public health concerns such as pandemic flu or other biological threats. By taking a collaborative approach and addressing a range of potential hazards, local homeland security professionals can make the best use of the resources available to them.

Updated 04-23-2007: A guest column in the Washington Post by former food executive Peter Kovacs echoes some of the concerns about imported food, especially from China:
One pound of tainted wheat gluten could, if undetected, contaminate as much as a thousand pounds of food.

Often, U.S. officials don't know where or how such ingredients were produced. We know, however, that alarms have been raised about hygiene and labor standards at many Chinese manufacturing facilities.

That it was pet food that got tainted -- and that relatively few pets were harmed -- is pure happenstance. Earlier this spring, Europe narrowly averted disaster when a batch of vitamin A from China was found to be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii, which has been proved to cause infant deaths. Thankfully, the defective vitamin A had not yet been incorporated into infant formula. Next time we may not be so fortunate.

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