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For FDA, policing dangerous food imports gets tougher

The agency's inspection labs, seen as a last line of defense against tainted products, face cuts even as their workload has increased.

September 16, 2007|Stephen J. Hedges | Chicago Tribune

ALAMEDA — When the 65 steel drums crossed from the Canadian border in late April, the accompanying documents said they contained honey from Canada, according to U.S. government officials. Since most food products from Canada are considered safe, the honey would have normally sailed through U.S. Customs.

But U.S. inspectors noticed something odd.

The green steel drums were marked as containing apple concentrate from China, one official said. When Food and Drug Administration investigators examined the honey inside, they found chips of green paint -- most likely from the drums themselves -- floating at the bottom of some containers. And laboratory tests of the honey revealed the presence of ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic banned in the production of food in the U.S. but often used in the making of honey in China.

The honey investigation, still open after more than four months, demonstrates the difficulties U.S. port inspectors face when it comes to policing imports, even on products that have drawn years of extra scrutiny. It's unclear who the importer is in the case.

The Chinese steel drums and the antibiotic led U.S. officials to believe that the honey shipment was actually from China, not Canada, said the official, who declined to be named. If so, it would not be the first time that the FDA has raised doubts over Chinese honey imports.

Accusations that China was dumping low-priced honey on the U.S. market prompted the federal government to impose trade quotas in December 2001. A year ago, the FDA issued an import alert on Chinese honey because of concerns about the presence of banned antibiotics.

"It's just another sign to us that we have this huge number of imports and no way to get a handle on it," said an FDA chemist.

As they stand today, labs like the FDA's Alameda laboratory, which was involved in testing the Chinese honey, are a last line of defense against tainted imports.

Recent congressional hearings revealed that the FDA inspected less than 1% of all food imports. But until several weeks ago, the agency had planned to close the Alameda lab and six others, cutting its number of labs in half.

The FDA backed away from the cuts after a congressional uproar. But critics said the plan revealed just how out of touch the FDA was with its food-safety mandate.

The agency's "food program has been cut steadily for a decade," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning. "The FDA has lost 1,000 people in the last 10 years. . . . It's really been a chipping away." The FDA's defenders argue that this is largely the fault of Congress, which has a way of cutting funds and then expressing outrage when problems arise.

Fears over Chinese food imports, such as the wheat flour used in pet food that was adulterated in China with melamine, a compound used to make plastics, erupted in March.

Eighty percent of U.S. seafood is imported, and China has been a major supplier. In June the FDA issued an import alert for some Chinese seafood. Since January, the FDA has rejected more than 200 Chinese seafood import items, including shrimp, eel, catfish and tilapia, according to agency records. The reasons cited in the rejection notices include the presence of antibiotics, salmonella and pesticides.

Under U.S. customs guidelines, importers must give the agency detailed information about arriving shipments. But David Nelson, an investigator for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, found during a recent investigation that "only 20% of food imports appear in FDA's food import computer system for review by the field inspection force." The FDA employs import reviewers who comb through the data, flagging countries or suppliers that have provided contaminated products in the past and shipments that look suspect on paper. But Nelson said he found that the reviewers had just 30 seconds to examine each of about 600 food import entries each day.

Barbara Cassens, director of the FDA's San Francisco District Office, said the reviewers did well given the crush of imports.

"I think for what we have, our staffing, and for how we look at our products and how we triage the big decisions, we're making quite an impact," Cassens said in an interview.

Just six miles from the Alameda lab, at the massive port in Oakland, more than 1.3 million containers arrive each year. Seafood shipments clear U.S. Customs and move to distributors or warehouses.

But importers can "bond" their shipments so they are inspected at the city of final destination, and not at the initial port of entry. That practice, several FDA officials said, is used by importers to avoid ports where FDA scrutiny is tighter.

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