Pesticides:

Adulterated Imported Foods Are Reaching U.S. Grocery Shelves

RCED-92-205: Published: Sep 24, 1992. Publicly Released: Oct 15, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) pesticide monitoring program, focusing on whether: (1) federal deterrents are adequate to prevent pesticide-adulterated food from reaching U.S. grocery shelves; and (2) FDA is using its resources to maximize detection of adulterated shipments.

GAO found that: (1) FDA has increased its testing of shipments for pesticide residues despite the fact that its staffing has not kept pace with the increased volume of inspections; (2) FDA-refused shipments still reach U.S. markets because importers retain possession of suspect shipments; (3) FDA lacks the authority to enforce fines to importers for distributing adulterated food, and even when fines are paid, the monetary consequences to the importer are not heavy; (4) bond agreements between importers and the Customs Service are the main enforcement tool; (5) liquidated damages are not meant to be a penalty for endangering public health and are not high enough, and importers often can avoid, reduce, or postpone paying damages; (6) the law provides only for criminal penalties, which are harder to obtain; (7) a few repeat offenders are responsible for the majority of violations and do not have to place their shipments in controlled storage; and (8) FDA could more effectively use its limited resources by controlling food shipments that are deemed more probable of violating regulations, restricting distribution of companion shipments of sampled shipments, and expediting the implementation of automatic detention on suspect importers.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To effectively deter importers from distributing pesticide-adulterated foods and to penalize them appropriately when they do so, Congress may wish to consider amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to add to the list of prohibited acts the distribution of sampled foods without FDA release.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No legislation that would implement this recommendation was introduced in the 103rd or 104th Congresses. At this time, it is not known when, or if, relevant legislation will be introduced.

    Matter: To effectively deter importers from distributing pesticide-adulterated foods and to penalize them appropriately when they do so, Congress may wish to consider amending the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services with authority to: (1) impose civil administrative penalties on importers who illegally distribute food shipments commensurate with the potential danger posed to public health and in an amount sufficient to deter such distributions and remove an importer's economic incentive for distributing adulterated foods; and (2) order importers who have repeatedly distributed shipments before FDA releases them to store sampled shipments in Customs-controlled warehouses until they are released.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: P.L. 104-170, enacted August 3, 1996, amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the authority to assess civil money penalties for distribution of pesticide-adulterated foods.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness of FDA efforts to detain suspect shipments, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner, FDA, to instruct districts to issue documentary sampling notices to ensure that shipments of the same food from the same grower arriving simultaneously with or soon after sampled shipments are not distributed until the sample is determined to be free of prohibited pesticide residues, with a reasonable deadline for the test results to be communicated to Customs and the importer.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA issued procedural guidance that partially implemented the recommendation. The guidance instructed field offices to collect compliance samples of multiple shipments that are suspected of containing illegal pesticide residues. The guidance, however, does not mandate the procedure for samples collected during routine surveillance.

    Recommendation: To increase the effectiveness of FDA efforts to detain suspect shipments, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner, FDA, to extend to the districts the responsibility for technical review and initiation of automatic detention without Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition approval when doing so is within the districts' technical capability.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department does not concur because it believes that headquarters review provides a uniform national perspective. This issue may surface in planned hearings. The recommendation is over 2 years old.

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