The New York Times recently published an article demonstrating that China is not our sole source of concern over contaminated food. Relying heavily upon FDA data and former employees of the FDA, the Times revealed some stunning and troubling statistics. The FDA inspects only one percent of the food shipments entering the United States. Despite this limited sampling, it stopped 2723 shipments from China, 2620 shipments from India, 1876 shipments from Mexico and 887 shipments from the Dominican Republic--just to name the more commonly identified sources of contaminated food. If this many shipments of contaminated food were identified in the one percent of shipments that were investigated, imagine what entered the country in the other 99 percent?
Salmonella was the primary reason food from India was rejected, and it was found in black pepper, coriander powder and shrimp, for example. Indian government representatives blamed food contamination on the fact that so many foods are processed in very small facilities, making it impossible to regulate. Chinese authorities offered similar excuses and estimated that twenty percent of the Chinese food manufacturing industry is tainted or substandard. The primary reason for stopping food from Mexico was the description "filthy", and foods rejected included lollipops, crabmeat and dried chili. It was suggested that Mexican products are more thoroughly inspected because of the entry of Mexican products by highway, rather than through ports.
Chinese imports to the U.S., which totalled more than $288 billion dollars in 2006, resulted in food alerts or bans 391 times in 2006, and a ban on the import of five species of farm-raised seafood. Import alerts were also announced, in May of 2007, on Mexican cantaloupe and basmati rice from India. Produce from the Dominican was stopped on 817 occasions in 2006, usually because traces of illegal pesticide were identified. Candy from Denmark was impounded 520 times, due to mislabeling.
Authorities noted that while food imports have virtually exploded in the past 10 years, the staffing of FDA inspection facilities has actually declined, and a plan to adequately staff them was shelved in 2003 due to budgetary constraints. Nancy M. Childs, a professor of food marketing from St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, noted that the problems we have experienced are an expected byproduct of downward price pressure: the defective or unsafe products identified are coming from economies and cultures where cheap products can be produced with little regulation and no enforcement.
Hopefully you can trust your local grocer, if you are fortunate enough to have one. For people who shop at price-driven giants like Wal-Mart, who buy in enormous quantities in a world economy, the traditional health and food protection that we Americans have long taken for granted is no longer viable.