Food Safety:

Weak and Inconsistently Applied Controls Allow Unsafe Imported Food to Enter U.S. Commerce

T-RCED-98-271: Published: Sep 10, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 1998.

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GAO discussed: (1) the extent to which federal controls ensure that food importers present shipments for inspection when required and that shipments refused entry are destroyed or reexported; and (2) ways to strengthen these controls.

GAO noted that: (1) the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) controls provide little assurance that shipments targeted for inspection are actually inspected or that shipments found to violate U.S. safety standards are destroyed or reexported; (2) because importers, rather than FDA, retain custody over shipments throughout the import process, some importers have been able to provide substitutes for products targeted for inspection or products that have been refused entry and must be reexported or destroyed, according to Customs Service and FDA officials; (3) moreover, Customs and FDA do not effectively coordinate their efforts to ensure that importers are notified that their refused shipments must be reexported or destroyed; (4) Customs' penalties for violating inspection and disposal requirements may provide little incentive for compliance because they are too low in comparison with the value of the imported products or they are not imposed at all; (5) as a result of these weaknesses, shipments that failed to meet U.S. safety standards were distributed in domestic commerce; (6) because the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requires unique identification marks on, and maintains custody of, each shipment of imported foods under its jurisdiction, GAO did not find similar weaknesses in FSIS' controls over the shipments reviewed, although GAO did identify some coordination problems between FSIS and Customs; (7) federal controls would be strengthened by consistently implementing current procedures and by adopting new procedures; (8) Customs and FDA officials and representatives of importer and broker associations identified a number of ways to improve agencies' controls over incoming shipments, strengthen interagency coordination, and provide stronger deterrents against repeat violators; and (9) each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages that should be considered before making any changes.

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