When Smiling Hara Tempeh’s managing executive Chad Oliphant began buying starter culture from Maryland-based Tempeh Online to make the popular bean product tempeh, he surely did not expect it to be contaminated with Salmonella (or anything else for that matter).  And, why should he? Like most people in his position, I imagine Mr. Oliphant was acting under the belief that the products purchased from overseas exporters have been vetted for safety issues.  Of course, this outbreak has shown that Smiling Hara Tempeh should have tested its product prior to sending it out for consumption, but it is also serves as an example of a burgeoning trend of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to imported food. Food products now come into the country from over 250,000 foreign companies located in 200 different countries.  Of all food Americans consume, 15 percent of fruits, 20 percent of vegetables, and 80 percent of seafood come from overseas. As the consumption of imported foods grows, so has the number of  foodborne illness outbreaks linked to these products. In just the past year consumers felt the pain of multiple import-related outbreaks: Turkish pine nuts, Mexican papayas, and Guatemalan cantaloupe were a few products linked to Salmonella outbreaks in 2011.  Contaminated sprout seeds imported to Germany from Egypt caused the disastrous E. coli outbreak in the Spring of 2011 that sickened thousands and killed 50 in Europe, including some Americans.  Most recently, alongside the tempeh outbreak, a nationwide Salmonella outbreak was traced to sushi made from imported Nakaochi scrape (a.k.a. tuna Scrape), ground tuna meat scraped from a tuna’s backbone. The contaminated tuna scrape was imported from India and distributed by a California company to supermarkets and restaurants all over the country.  Despite labels indicating the product should be cooked, it was used in sushi rolls and ceviche–dishes served raw.  Over 300 Americans who ate the raw imported tuna scrape became ill with Salmonella infections. Perhaps it should not be altogether unsurprising that we are experiencing foodborne illness outbreaks tied to imported foods, given the lack of oversight afforded to imports. While forty-five percent of import-related foodborne illnesses are tied to seafood, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only inspects 1 percent of seafood that enters the country. Of the seafood inspected, 51 percent gets rejected due to spoilage, physical abnormalities, or pathogen contamination. All other imported food fares only slightly better, with 2 percent becoming subject to inspection. So while thousands of people were likely sickened by imported food last year, my dire prediction is that we’ll continue to see a rise in import-related foodborne illness outbreaks.  That is, unless there are upgrades to current FDA import policies. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this thinking. In 2010, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which included a substantial revamp of food safety procedures required for domestic food production and imports.  If funded, FMSA will increase the number of import inspections; importers will be specifically required to have a program to verify that the food products they are bringing into this country are safe as well as verify that their suppliers are in compliance with reasonably appropriate risk-based preventive controls. Unfortunately, there are some very real hurdles to clear before FSMA can take effect. A critical defect in FSMA is the absence a funding mandate.  This means that while FDA may be required by law to implement improved food safety procedures, there will not be enough money to put those policies into action.  Currently, the funding for FSMA lies in the hands of Congress, though as FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has pointed out, so far Congress has been unwilling to allocate FDA the funds necessary to validate the legislation. Of course there is another roadblock that preempts even the likes of Congress.  The Whitehouse Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is responsible for approving draft rules such as the provisions established in FSMA. The FSMA rules pertaining to imports were supposed to be finalized by January 4, 2012, but five months later they remain in OMB, apparently stalled. Where does this leave us? We will continue to see a rise in the number of imports. Americans will continue to eat more imports. Without funding and enacting FSMA import rules, we will continue to see more outbreaks associated with imports. As for Smiling Hara Tempeh, perhaps if OMB had been on schedule and Congress had appropriated sufficient funding, over 80 people would not have become victims of Salmonella poisoning.  In the meantime it will be up to American importers to ensure the foods they are bringing in from other countries are safe.

  • The American consumer has the power of the purse she cannot make use of because of the dearth of information made available to consumers. Testing is expensive. Sharing the cost of testing, even with its inevitable delays, may be the only feasible way for consumers to obtain the information they need to exercise their power of purse. Thus far, there is only one place I know of (www.foodsafetyanalysis.com/consumer) where consumers may (for five bucks) place a shared order for the determination of any potential contaminant (in this case, the arsenic, lead or mercury content) of a given prepared food product. It is even conceivable that manufacturers may want to participate in such testing. Why – because any product that passes such transparent testing can (and should) command a higher price in the market. The delays inherent in the shared cost model mean that the results may never speak to a given lot, but they will, over time, certainly speak to a given brand. Isn’t that how the “free market” we’ve heard tell about should operate?

  • Vene

    Mike, and what about when the name of the factory where the food is processed isn’t even on the label or what about when our consumer goes to a restaurant to eat? Even if what you are suggesting becomes widespread, it doesn’t help if you don’t know who is actually responsible for the food in question.

  • Vene, Obviously, I have never had any labels served to me with any meal I have ever ordered at a restaurant. I think restaurant meals are in a different category from foods purchased at retail. I agree with you that traceability is important and that current allowable labeling practices leave much to be desired. Nevertheless, even given the poor traceability currently in place, any product sold to consumers is identified with a name. If the consumer knows that there real questions exist regarding its safety, that consumer is likely to exercise her power of purse so as to mitigate her risk – she will buy a competing product.
    This sort of thing is happening already. A good, now historical, example occurred when the Dr. Oz program broke the story about arsenic in apple juice and other drinks available in our grocery stores. FDA’s first response was to vilify Dr. Oz and his program, presumably to protect both the manufacturers involved and the perceived hit to their own reputation as regulators. They did not back off until the Consumer’s Union ran its own testing, which showed that Dr. Oz was basically right.
    More recently, Consumer’s Union has published another study, this one about Salmonella and Camplylobacter contamination in chicken. Their findings were that: “ . . . Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farms all had contamination, with Tyson and Foster Farms being the most contaminated and Perdue being the cleanest.” I would imagine that any consumer aware of such a brand comparison would, given the choice, exercise her power of purse in favor of a Perdue chicken. I also have no doubt, that the legal eagles working for Tyson and Foster Farms have already been asked to investigate the possibility of a lawsuit against a pesky, interfering third party who seeks to defame their brand. I say this because I remember the rather incredible incident in August 2011 when Del Monte Fresh Produce sued the FDA over an import restriction on cantaloupes Del Monte was importing from the Asuncion Mita farm in Guatemala, presumably contaminated with Salmonella panama.
    Yet, if such information were available on an ongoing basis and derived from shared testing by actual consumers, the companies whose products were being called into question would all understand that any company foolish enough to bring a lawsuit against its own customers would be out of business in less time than it would take for a chicken to peck you on the leg.
    Currently, consumers participate in the food safety debate by either getting sick or remaining healthy. We can do better. Consumers need consistent, accurate, transparent information to exercise their power of purse. The flip side is that companies, who invest the time, effort and expertise to the production of safe food should be rewarded by the market.