An increasing portion of the food on our plate is coming from beyond our borders, but how do we know that it’s safe? A new study by the Institute of Medicine looks at the “daunting” task of ensuring safe food across the globe and comes to the conclusion that it’s going to take lot more than random, infrequent inspections.
The flood of imported food and drugs is putting a lot of stress on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with overseeing the safety of food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices. The volume of imported FDA-regulated products has tripled over the last decade, increasing by 13 percent each year since 2002. Now an estimated 40 percent of fruits and nuts and 85 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported.
The IOM suggests that FDA’s traditional method of trying to keep a handle on food and product safety by making periodic inspections is impractical because 20 million types of FDA-regulated foods arrive from more than 300,000 factories in 150 different countries.
Instead, the committee suggests FDA use enterprise risk management — which aggregates risk information across all products to analyze threats — to guide the agency’s efforts. The panel also recommends that FDA use it’s reputation and expertise to help developing countries build their own capacity to regulate food and drugs.
“These partnerships should involve other regulatory agencies, foundations and other donors, universities, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations, such as consumer and industry groups,” reads the study. “One priority for the FDA and its international partners should be to expand education and training about regulatory science and policy in countries that are high-volume exporters of high-risk goods to the U.S. market.”
The committee notes that the globalization of food and drugs presents a unique challenge to regulators and consumers alike: “International trade can turn the product safety failures of the poorest countries into liabilities for the richest ones.”
The report comes just weeks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a review that suggests outbreaks tied to imported foods are increasing.
Of course, moving forward on the IOM’s recommendations takes time, staff, and resources, which FDA and its allies are fighting for as discretionary spending gears up for another tough budget battle.