Food and environmental safety

What is actually safe to eat?

A couple of weeks ago, it seemed that in every class I was hearing about a new foodborne illness outbreak. Every teacher warned me of a different exposure route, but the majority of them were with contaminated seafood.  If you look towards the news, you would see that every couple months over the past few years there has been a new outbreak. A website known as “Food Safety News” is constantly posting new stories pertaining to foodborne illness outbreaks.


Formaldehyde Found in Seafood (Source: Food Safety News)

If you look at the majority of these stories on the “Food Safety News” website, you can see a pattern. Almost every foodborne illness story is related to the importation of specific foods or spices from other countries. This made me wonder who has control over inspecting and ensuring the safety of our imported foods. I found that the Food and Drug Administration was given the authority to ensure the safety of our food by the U.S. Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This act states “importers of food products intended for introduction into U.S. interstate commerce are responsible for ensuring that the products are safe, sanitary, and labeled according to U.S. requirements. (All imported food is considered to be interstate commerce.)”

The FDA’s website goes on further to say, “FDA is not authorized under the law to approve, certify, license, or otherwise sanction individual food importers, products, labels, or shipments. Importers can import foods into the United States without prior sanction by FDA, as long as the facilities that produce, store, or otherwise handle the products are registered with FDA, and prior notice of incoming shipments is provided to FDA.

Imported food products are subject to FDA inspection when offered for import at U.S. ports of entry. FDA may detain shipments of products offered for import if the shipments are found not to be in compliance with U.S. requirements. Both imported and domestically-produced foods must meet the same legal requirements in the United States.”

Further investigation into the FDA shows that there are many different programs and fail safes in place to ensure the quality of the food being imported, but still things slip past. It is impossible for the FDA and the port authority to search and test every shipment that enters the U.S., which makes it very difficult to ensure the quality of food that U.S. citizens are accustomed to.

A recent article by NPR,  “Fish and Spices top list of imported foods that make us sick”  tells of a different cause to the spread of foodborne illnesses. This article says, “Since the late 1990s the amount of food that’s imported has doubled and the number of outbreaks has mirrored that”. It goes on to explain that it is not the food coming in, but the quantities in which they are being consumed. Approximately 15% of all food on U.S. tables is imported from other countries, which makes it very difficult for the FDA to inspect all of it. In turn a new act was implemented in 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which focuses on preventing contamination instead of responding to it. This is a completely new approach at tackling the problem of foodborne illness.

As consumers in the U.S. market do you feel safer with all these new regulations and programs? Do you believe it is advantageous to think foodborne illness is mainly caused by consumer practices? ( e.g. food preparation safety) What foods won’t you eat after hearing about how they have caused food borne illness? After hearing about so many different food borne illnesses, do you think you will change your eating habits? If not, why? Do you think the FDA should try a new approach at ensuring our safety or are they current doing all they can?