The University of Maryland is offering a new strategy for improving the safety of imported foods: train the foreign experts who test these goods in the U.S.’s standards and protocol.
This week the school launched  the first in a series of courses designed to teach methods of microbiological and analytical testing recommended by the U.S. government.

The new International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL) program will give 200 professional students per year a chance to learn from government regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among other federal agencies.

“The more we can get foreign food facilities to harmonize their procedures and their work with U.S. requirements, the greater the likelihood of safe imported foods reaching American consumers,” says Janie DuBois, director of the program. “The FDA can only inspect a small fraction of all imports, so food should enter the country safe, well-tested and up to our standards.” 

Specifically, of the 9.5 million shipments of imported food entering the country each year, FDA only physically inspects about 1.5 percent of these products, according to the Huffington Post.  

And FDA tests less than 1 percent of seafood entering the country each year, though it is estimated that almost 85 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.

Huffington Post reports that only .23 percent of fresh fruit and vegetable imports were tested for foodborne pathogens, although imported produce is three times more likely to be contaminated than local produce, according to FDA.

The IFSTL program is designed to meet gaps in U.S. produce and seafood testing by attempting to tighten foreign lab analysis procedures.

In addition to partnering with government, the program is supported by the Waters Corporation, which manufactures laboratory testing equipment.

“This uncommon collaboration promises a powerful response to a serious and growing international concern,” says University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “Joining academic, private sector and government expertise makes a lot of sense, and is a uniquely effective way to build international scientific capacity and food safety.”

The new curriculum is expected to draw interest from producers in developing nations who see it as a chance to make their products more marketable to the U.S..

“We’ve gotten enthusiastic responses from a number of developing countries because they see the potential benefits for their export and domestic markets,” says DuBois. JIFSAN [Mayland’s Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition] is already actively training overseas, and this facility gives us the chance to further contribute to the harmonization of international food-handling and testing standards.”

The first course to be offered this fall will instruct Chinese students in how to test fresh produce for pesticide contamination.