WASHINGTON, March 30, 2016 – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused food imports at the same level between 2005 and 2013, even though the volume of food imports increased over that time period, says an Economic Research Service study released Wednesday.

In effect, the number of refused shipments declined compared to the volume of imports, and that could be good news, but it could also be bad, according to John Bovay, the report’s author and an agricultural economist for ERS.

It might reflect improved compliance with U.S. laws among foreign producers and importers, Bovay told Agri-Pulse. After all, “about 10,000 shipments are refused entry for one reason or another” every year by FDA, he said, so it’s not like bad actors aren’t caught. But then again, the decline in refusals may also reflect FDA’s limited capacity to inspect, detain and refuse imported food.

FDA oversees the safety of most of the food sold in the U.S., including food imported from foreign countries. But because resources are limited, FDA prioritizes inspections using a risk-based prediction algorithm – as opposed to a random sample method of inspection. In total, FDA only inspects around 1 percent of all imported shipments.

Between 2005 and 2013, Bovay found that the majority of food product categories refused by FDA were:

  • Fishery and seafood products (20.5 percent of all refusals), most commonly refused due to sanitary violations;
  • Vegetables and vegetable products (16.1 percent), mostly due to unsafe pesticide residues;
  • Fruit and fruit products (10.5 percent), mostly due to sanitary violations;
  • Spices, flavors, and salts (7.7 percent), mostly due to the presence of Salmonella bacteria; and
  • Candy without chocolate and chewing gum (7.2 percent), mostly due to the presence of an unsafe color additive.

Of the over 140,000 violations recorded between 2005-2013, Bovay found 57 percent were due to adulteration – problems relating to safety, packaging integrity or sanitation – and 41 percent were due to untruthful or misleading labels, or labels that lack English.

Most of the food refused came from Mexico (where most of the rejected product was vegetables), India (spices) and China (seafood). Because these violations have persisted for years on the same products from the same countries, his report concluded that “FDA’s inspection regime has not completely deterred producers and importers from offering food shipments for import that violate U.S. laws.”

In an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse, Bovay said “It’s impossible for us to say definitively that products from these countries are more dangerous, or that, for exampleseafood is more likely to contaminated with a certain pathogen than other types of products.”

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But that’s because FDA doesn’t track the shipments it inspects and passes. “We don’t know how many shipments of spices there are,” he said, adding that maybe FDA inspects 5 percent of spices, because spices from India have been in persistent violation, or maybe not. “It’s all kind of a black box for us.”

“Maybe the incidence of adulteration could have been worse if FDA hadn’t had the regime it has. Yes, some countries are repeat offenders, but they’re also having their products refused entry and maybe that means FDA’s algorithm is effective,” Bovay added.

USDA in contrast, does some form of testing on all the shipments of products they oversee – poultry, meat, processed egg products, and now, catfish. In addition, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service must preapprove the processing facilities that intend to ship these products to the U.S.


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