How far did your lunch travel?

As Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) labels show up in grocery stores, we are learning that approximately 80% of our seafood, 90% of lamb and mutton, 30% of fresh fruits and nuts, and 13% of vegetables are imported from around the world. The top 10 countries importing food and beverages into the U.S. include: Canada, Mexico, China, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, Chile, New Zealand, Colombia and the European Union.

Developing countries such as Mexico and China are increasingly important in our food supply. Food imports from China into the U.S. have quadrupled over the last decade. China is now our number one country for importing prepared/preserved fruits, number two for prepared/preserved vegetables, and number four for fresh or frozen vegetables. China also is the number one producer of farmed fish and shellfish in the world, and the number one supplier of apple juice.

China supplies 80 percent of the world’s ascorbic acid– vitamin C – one-third of the world’s vitamin A, much of the supply of vitamin B-12, and many health-food supplements, such as lysine. Perhaps most surprising, a growing percentage of imported “organic” foods are now coming from China as well. So my daughter’s lunch of fish sticks, crackers, a fruit snack, apple juice, and a vitamin could all be from China. But is her food safe?

But is it safe?

Chinese food-safety scandals unfortunately are also on the rise. Just in the last two years, China has been hit with several major controversies. Melamine was found in baby formula and other products containing milk powder. Adulterated pet food ingredients killed dogs and cats across the United States. Farm-raised seafood was contaminated with unapproved drug residues. Diethylene glycol, a chemical found in anti-freeze, was found in toothpaste.

Problems with food safety are not restricted to imports. There also have been several product scandals and recalls associated with U.S. food production in the last year. A recent scandal involving salmonella contamination of processed peanuts led to 700 illnesses and 9 deaths, and resulted in more than 2,800 products being voluntarily recalled.

Prior to that, the U.S. experienced a major E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach, Salmonella in chili peppers, and E. coli in iceberg lettuce.
All of this has led Americans to ask: “Is my food safe?”

Unfortunately, that remains a difficult question to answer. There is a growing consensus that the U.S. government’s system for guaranteeing food safety is broken. However, this realization has led to a growing political alignment toward reforming food safety regulation. I’ll get into this in more detail in a future blog post.

And in the meantime, what is a shopper to do?

80 percent of the food in the US is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Ironically, it is the US Dept. of Agriculture –- which regulates meat, poultry, and eggs –- that has more advanced regulatory tools.

One such tool is called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP –- pronounced “Hassup”). This is essentially a food safety program. The USDA requires food companies producing meat, poultry, seafood, and juice to implement self-monitoring programs that first identify all of the “critical control points” in their production process where pathogens and contaminants are likely to enter the food supply chain; detail how they will reduce these risks; and then verify through testing, their success in eliminating these contaminants. The HACCP plan must be complemented by a Standard Sanitation Operations Plan detailing the plant’s housekeeping measures.

The FDA has never required this of the manufacturers that produce the other 80 percent of the food we eat (like the ones producing the spinach, chili peppers, and peanuts that have experienced recent outbreaks.)

Shoppers should know –- or be able to ask these firms -– whether they have implemented a HACCP-like food safety program that goes all the way from the farm to the processing plant to the grocery store to your table. These programs should logically also cover all of the steps in food production that occur outside of the US as well.

In this model, the role of government shifts from direct examination of every food product, to verification of the food processors’ hazard reduction systems, and then spot verification of contaminant reduction efforts. All this information should then made be public so that individuals and organizations such as GoodGuide can use it to evaluate different food manufacturers.

Update

Interesting story from Hong Kong this morning on more food scandals in China.
Food Safety in China

References:

CRS Report for Congress: Food and Agricultural Imports from China [PDF]
Amber Waves: What Share of U.S. Consumed Food Is Imported?
NPR: As Imports Increase, a Tense Dependence on China
CSPI: Building a Modern Food Safety System [PDF]

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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