Food Safety:

Federal Efforts to Ensure the Safety of Imported Foods Are Inconsistent and Unreliable

RCED-98-103: Published: Apr 30, 1998. Publicly Released: May 11, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed efforts of federal programs to ensure the safety of food imports, focusing on the: (1) differences in the agencies' authorities and approaches for ensuring the safety of imported foods; (2) agencies' efforts to target their resources on foods posing risks; and (3) weaknesses in the controls over imported foods.

GAO noted that: (1) federal agencies cannot ensure that the growing volume of imported foods is safe for consumers; (2) although the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require imported foods to meet the same standards as domestic foods, their approaches to enforcing these requirements differ; (3) by law, FSIS places the principal burden for safety on the exporting countries by allowing imports only from those countries with food safety systems it deems to be equivalent to the U.S. system; (4) FDA, lacking such legal authority, allows food imports from almost any country and takes on the burden of ensuring the safety of imported foods as they arrive at U.S. ports of entry; (5) relying on port-of-entry inspections to detect and prevent unsafe foods is ineffective, given that: (a) this approach does not ensure that foods are produced under adequately controlled conditions; (b) FDA currently inspects less than 2 percent of all foreign shipments; and (c) inspection will not detect some organisms, such as Cyclospora, for which visual inspections and laboratory tests are inadequate; (6) FSIS and FDA are not deploying their inspection resources to maximum advantage; (7) FSIS focuses its inspection and testing resources on shipments from exporting firms with a history of violations; (8) however, many of the violations may bear little relationship to food safety; (9) using available data on health-related risks from shipments that do not meet U.S. standards could help FSIS focus more closely on the imports posing the greater risks; (10) FDA's annual work plan does not set achievable targets for inspection activities; (11) as a result, inspectors do not have clear guidance for conducting inspections; (12) FDA does not make health risk data readily available to guide inspectors' selections; (13) when making decisions on which shipments to inspect, FDA relies on importers' descriptions of shipments' contents, which are often incorrect; (14) FDA's procedures for ensuring that unsafe imported foods do not reach U.S. consumers are vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous importers; (15) in some cases, when FDA decides to inspect shipments, the importers have already marketed the goods; (16) in other cases, when FDA finds contamination and calls for importers to return shipments to the Customs Service for destruction or reexport, importers ignore this requirement or substitute other goods for the original shipment; and (17) such cases of noncompliance seldom result in a significant penalty.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In May 1999, two bills were introduced, S.1126 and S.1123, that addressed the equivalency issue. S.1126 requires that imported foods be prepared, packed, and held under a system that the Secretary of HHS determines to provide a level of safety equivalent to that of foods prepared, packed, or held in the U.S. S.1123 also sets out equivalency requirements for imported foods that have been associated with repeated foodborne illnesses. Both bills were referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee. According to Committee staff, the Committee does not plan to address these bills during this Congressional session.

    Matter: To strengthen FDA's ability to ensure the safety of imported foods, Congress should require that all food eligible for importation to the United States, not just meat and poultry, be produced under equivalent food safety systems.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA implemented a new version of its automated imported food screening system in June 2001. Inspectors now have the ability to view prior laboratory results when selecting shipments for inspection. The new import screening system also includes selected information from Import Alerts and provides inspectors with the ability to obtain additional information from the Import Alerts database without closing the OASIS program. Although FDA has not enabled the automated system to screen Low Acid Canned Food (LACF) database test results, it has converted the LACF system to a compatible database to ease a linkage with the automated import system.

    Recommendation: To provide more accurate and accessible information to FDA and thus minimize inconsistencies in inspectors' subjective decisions, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner, FDA, to modify the Operational and Administrative System for Import Support system so that: (1) it automatically reviews the Import Alert and Low-Acid Canned Food databases and recommends appropriate actions to inspectors; and (2) inspectors can consider previous Laboratory Management System database in choosing shipments for inspections and tests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, FDA said that, while it believes sufficient guidance is already available to inspectors, it has enhanced the utility of its automated import system by making screening criteria available, which will enable FDA to tell inspection staff why an item has been referred for review.

    Recommendation: To provide more accurate and accessible information to FDA and thus minimize inconsistencies in inspectors' subjective decisions, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner, FDA, to clarify and emphasize the guidance inspectors should use when making decisions on which shipments to inspect and test.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA concurred with the recommendation. In June 2001, FSIS announced the development of a new port-of-entry inspection system that includes significant changes to the Automated Import Information System (AIIS). The new system requires data entry by country of shipment, the foreign producer, the product species, and unique data to facilitate tracebacks. The system is capable of sharing data with other systems including laboratory test results. FSIS field tested the system and completed installing its software in July 2002. As of August 2002, the new system was operational and the old system is schedueld to be taken out of service in September, 2002.

    Recommendation: To help FSIS better identify the risks associated with specific foods and thereby further improve the Automated Import Information System's usefulness in selecting high-risk products to inspect, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FSIS, to modify the Automated Import Information System so that the system can identify patterns between laboratory test results and specific foods, foreign firms, and exporting countries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA concurred with this recommendation and said that it has taken action to remind FDA District Directors of the Agency's policy that non-compliant filers should be identified and appropriate corrective action taken, including removal of filers from paperless filing status.

    Recommendation: To provide more accurate and accessible information to FDA and thus minimize inconsistencies in inspectors' subjective decisions, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner, FDA, to ensure that the field offices are taking appropriate corrective action, when warranted, against importers that repeatedly enter incorrect shipping information into the Operational and Administrative System for Import Support database.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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