April 23, 2007 - The Safety of Imported Food

The recent recall of pet food, manufactured with imported but apparently contaminated wheat gluten, imported from China, has raised several questions about the safety of imported food and feed products. One question is easily answered . . . Why are we importing wheat gluten from China? Because it is cheaper than our domestic product and the bottom line matters to any U.S. company.

If you doubt that, I share this story from a conversation with a California pistachio grower who told me he ships his pistachios to China for grinding and packaging for the baking industry. Despite the cost of round-trip container shipping, labor and packaging, he still gets it done cheaper than if he did it in California. That’s part of the global economy in which we live today.

But that leads us to the safety issue, and here we should really be concerned. Our grandparents never had fresh fruits and vegetables in the middle of winter, yet now we expect that at the produce counter and 90% of those products are produced outside our borders, where we have no control over production practices. Need I tell you that very few of those products are inspected at the border because the Food & Drug Administration doesn’t have the budget to hire enough inspectors to do the job?

Here are some numbers from a recent story in USA TODAY to help you understand the enormity of the challenge. This year we will import $70-billion worth of food and food products; nearly double the amount imported just 10 years ago. About one-fourth of our fruit, fresh and frozen; half of our tree nuts; and more than two-thirds of our fish and shellfish are imported. Each year, the average American consumes 260 pounds of imported food, 13% of our annual diet. How much is inspected? ...just 1.3%. Even with that small percentage, in a one-month period earlier this year, 850 shipments of fish, vegetables, grains, nuts and other food items were detained by the FDA. The reasons ranged from filth, to salmonella to pesticide contamination.

Fixing the problem will be costly and complicated and I wonder if the average taxpaying consumer is ready to cough up the dollars; if they are even aware of the problem. It brings me to another point you have heard from me before . . . if we insist on passing environmental laws that make it more costly and difficult to produce food in this country, more of our production will move outside our borders and we lose even more control over food safety. Think of that the next time you go to court to shut down a farm or ranch; it may come back to bite us in the end.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez!