Food Safety and Quality:

FDA Can Improve Monitoring of Imported Cheese

RCED-92-210: Published: Jul 6, 1992. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed: (1) the health risks presented by imported cheeses; (2) the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) efforts to regulate the safety of domestic and imported cheeses; and (3) concerns about the FDA import program.

GAO found that: (1) FDA generally categorizes cheeses, especially soft and semi-soft styles, as high-risk food because they are susceptible to contamination by potentially fatal bacteria; (2) about 35 percent of all cheeses imported to the United States are soft or semi-soft types, which are highly susceptible to microbial contamination because of their high moisture content; (3) products from some exporting countries have had a higher incidence of bacteriological contamination than other countries and have been refused entry more frequently because those countries did not have food safety standards similar to those in the United States; (4) FDA has worked with exporting countries, such as France and Italy, whose cheese products have had higher violation rates, to develop certification programs for testing cheese exported to the United States; (5) under the French certification program, the government inspects cheese manufacturing facilities exporting to the United States and certifies that the facilities are listeria-free; (6) the effectiveness of the French certification program is unknown because FDA has not formally monitored the program and does not maintain sufficient data on cheese imported under the program; and (7) there are a number of problems with the FDA inspection procedures for imported foods, such as low sampling rates, which do not provide adequate inspection coverage, making comprehensive monitoring of certification programs even more critical.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency generally agreed with the characterization in the report and is exploring means to formalize its certification program with France. The agency has drafted a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for soft-ripened cheeses that are produced and packaged in France for export to the United States. The French government is exploring alternatives to the MOU, and FDA believes that a quick solution is unlikely.

    Recommendation: Because of the lack of information on the effectiveness of the FDA certification program with France, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner, FDA, to develop a formal program to monitor the French certification agreement for imported soft cheese, as well as other certification programs, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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