The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and HealthDay continued their coverage on the US food supply today.  This time, though, the focus wasn’t on foods produced in the US – it was on foods imported from countries such as China, Mexico, and Costa Rica.  Imported produce such as green onions and cantaloupe have led to hepatitis A and Salmonella outbreaks in recent years, and concerns about the quality of imported foods have risen.

Today’s article profiled Richard Miller, a Marler Clark client who contracted hepatitis A and received a liver transplant after eating Mexican green onions at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in 2003.  It also featured a discussion on several hot food safety topics:

  • Melamine in pet food, antifreeze in toothpaste, and chemical-contaminated fish feed resulted in large recalls of imported products this year.  Illness and death due to imported products such as these has increased American consumers’ skepticism about whether imported foods are safe to eat.
  • An increase in the availability of fresh produce year-round through import programs has led to an increase in the amount of food we consume that contain high levels of pesticides.  According to the article’s authors, the source of the problem is under-funding and a lack of resources at the Food and Drug Administration:

Trouble is, inspections by the FDA — either at the source of production or at the borders — can’t keep up. The agency is responsible for inspecting all imported foods with the exception of meat and egg products, which are covered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Overall, "there’s been an 81 percent drop [in FDA inspections] since 1972," noted Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, in Griffin. "That’s a huge reduction, and, at the same time, compared to 1972, we have a huge amount more of food imports."

In fact, the FDA’s own data show that the number of inspectors at its Office of Regulatory Affairs dropped from 1,642 in 2003 to 1,389 in 2005 — even as food imports rose from 9.3 million shipments per year to more than 13.8 million shipments annually.

The reason for the shortfall is simple, Doyle said: "Reduced budgets."

  • Finally, the article discusses the traceability of products.  In the United States, public health officials are fairly successful at identifying the source of outbreaks beyond a brand – they can trace spinach to a specific field or supplier and meat to a particular slaughter house.  But in developing countries, some of which we import from, trace-back systems are not fully in place and can complicate outbreak investigations.

More information about illnesses caused by contaminated foods can be found at