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An expert assesses food safety in trade

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[April 27, 2007]  URBANA -- Given the tremendous growth in foodstuffs imported into the United States, there are remarkably few problems with unsafe products entering the country, said a University of Illinois agricultural economist.

"There are many reasons for this," explained Laurian J. Unnevehr, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. "In essence, the market is working because the private sector has become increasingly vigilant. There are systems of management and quality certification in place.

"And, importantly, liability concerns have made importers and firms that distribute the products proactive."

Unnevehr is studying food imports, specifically the reasons that products are refused entry by the Food and Drug Administration. She also compares the FDA's reasons for refusal with those issued by the European Union in its system. The purpose of the research is to identify systematic failures in food safety control that might pose risks to consumers.

"The FDA approaches the inspections with a risk-based system," she explained. "There is no way with its resources that the agency could inspect every shipment of fruits, vegetables and other foodstuffs that enter the country. Instead, they identify high-risk products and sources through a system of 'alerts' that allows them to detain products without an actual physical examination."

Those "alerts" are based on problems that have already occurred.

Many Americans are probably unaware of the wide variety food products that enter the country and end up on their tables.

"The biggest growth categories for food imports are seafood, fruits and vegetables," Unnevehr said. "More than one-half of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Seafood imports are the area where some of the most immediate risks occur. Often they originate in low-income countries which lack infrastructure for effective sanitation and transportation."

Food product refusals differ between the United States and the European Union, largely because each reflects a different system of regulation and standards.

The most important hazards triggering FDA refusals are microbial contamination, such as salmonella in seafood, pesticide residues in vegetables and sanitary violations in several product categories. In the EU, the top reasons are mycotoxins on nuts, chemical contaminants such as additives and food dyes, microbiological contamination, and veterinary drug residues. These reflect stricter EU standards that trigger hazard alerts more often for mycotoxins, drug residues and food additives.

It is also important to note that refusal of a product does not necessarily mean it represents a danger to humans.

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"A lot of the refusals for vegetable imports involve pesticide residues," Unnevehr explained. "Sometimes vegetables are refused for having residue of pesticides not registered in the United States. One example would be snow peas from Guatemala. There is a pesticide used there that is not used in the United States because we don't grow snow peas here. There is no reason to register a pesticide that is not used in this country; hence, those snow peas can be stopped. It does not necessarily mean that the residue poses a significant risk to human health, however."

Unnevehr refers to these situations as "disconnects" in the system -- things that represent no health risk but reflect a difference between production requirements in two countries.

"Most FDA refusals are for violations that do not involve imminent health risks to consumers," she said. "Or, in some cases, they involve products that are not widely consumed, such as tamarind or banana blossoms. Most of us are not eating some of the products where a large number of problems are found."

Still, incidents like recent problems with pet food ingredients that resulted in several pet deaths have raised public attention and concern about the amount of food being imported and the controls over food safety.

Unnevehr's research has not concluded, so she isn't prepared to make recommendations about what, if anything needs to be done. But one thing is clear to her -- context is important.

"The number one country in terms of the number of violations for fruits and vegetables imported to the United States is Mexico," she said. "But that is deceiving because Mexico is one of the largest exporters to the United States.

"If you look at Mexican import refusals per $1 million of product, you find that its rate is only 0.18. Two other nations, for example, that have a lower level of imports have a much higher rate of refusals per $1 million. Nigeria and Jordan have rates in excess of 100. India, which is a major exporter of food to the United States, has a rate of 16 per $1 million and China's rate is 0.64 per $1 million."

FDA refusals, she adds, are also based on factors other than food safety concerns. For instance, products can be refused for a dirty appearance or if they are mislabeled.

"Mislabeling is the reason for about one-third of the refusals," she noted. "Such products do not necessarily post immediate risks to health and safety."

[Text from file received from the University of Illinois Extension]


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