(Beyond Pesticides, May 16, 2007) Americans, whether we know it or not, are increasingly having imported food for dinner. While concerns over international agricultural practices, including pesticide use, have peaked recently, food imports are making their way with little inspection into the U.S. marketplace.
USA Today reports approximately 25,000 shipments of foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) arrive daily from over 100 countries. Shipments have increased by more than four times and doubled in value since 1996 according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
FDA has not been able to keep up with this pace. It is reported that FDA inspects about 1% of the imported foods it regulates, down from an already low 8% in 1992. Too understaffed and underfinanced to inspect the vast majority of imports, this signals a large green light for produce and seafood to enter the U.S. market without having to sweat inspections (meat and poultry products are regulated separately through the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
“The public thinks the food supply is much more protected than it is,” William Hubbard, a former associate commissioner who left in 2005 after 27 years at the agency, told the New York Times. “If people really knew how weak the F.D.A. program is, they would be shocked.”
Mr. Hubbard continued that with the food-safety inspection system clearly overwhelmed, other countries will increasingly look at the United States as a dumping ground for substandard food shipments. He also pointed out that today the risks can be chemical, pesticide-related or bacterial in nature ”” none of which can be found by simply looking at the food.
As Michael Doyle, head of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia pointed out to USA Today, more food imports are coming from developing countries, where pesticide use is often higher than in the U.S.
Pesticide use is also frequently less regulated in many of the major exporting countries. For example, China is the third-largest exporter of food, by value, to the U.S., shipping almost five times as much food as it did in 1996. Reuters reported this week that “China’s farmers overuse pesticides, skip protective clothing and have at their fingertips an array of banned and counterfeit [pesticide] products, raising another area of concern in the country’s fragile food chain.” In addition, a 2003 analysis by FDA shows pesticide violations are two and a half times more likely in imported food samples.
TAKE ACTION: Buy local and organic whenever possible. While this is not always the cheapest source of food, it is a practice that supports the local economy, ensures local food production and protects you and your loved ones from pesticides. If you are not sure where to find local, organic food, try the Local Harvest website: www.localharvest.org.