When combined, fruits and vegetables were the foods most frequently subject to import refusals by the FDA from 2005 to 2013, followed by fishery products/seafood and the spices/flavorings/salts category. Mexico, India and China topped the list for the countries with the highest number of refusals during that time frame, according to a new report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Relative to the increased volume of food imports during those years, the overall number of refusals declined, but the Food and Drug Administration can’t tell if that seemingly good news is a result of better food safety compliance by foreign suppliers or a reflection of the agency’s strained budget, according to the report released Wednesday. The FDA physically inspects about 1 percent of food shipments offered for import to the United States because that’s all its budget can afford, officials reported. With such a low percentage of shipments being inspected, the FDA doesn’t have enough data to extrapolate cause and effect scenarios. The FDA also doesn’t have enough funding for random tests for pathogens or other food adulterants in import shipments, according to the report. The agency uses a risk-based algorithm to determine what shipments to test, which further muddies the view. “The nonrandom nature of FDA sampling means that researchers cannot draw inferences about the relative safety of food produced in various countries or the relative risk of certain food products,” according to the report. “Instead, the conclusions drawn in this report highlight FDA refusals that reveal recurring patterns of import violations in food products, which have repeatedly attracted the attention of FDA inspectors.” The FDA reported almost 143,000 violations from 2005 to 2013, with 57 percent of them for adulteration, which includes food safety issues, packaging integrity or sanitation. About 41 percent of the violations were for misbranding, which may include untruthful or misleading labels or labels that lack information in English. “The countries with the most food shipments refused by FDA — Mexico, India, and China — have distinct sets of product categories — vegetables, spices, and seafood, respectively — that have been subject to the most refusals,” according to the report. “The persistence of the same problems, year after year, in food import shipments indicates that FDA’s inspection regime has not completely deterred producers and importers from offering food shipments for import that violate U.S. laws.” The USDA’s research arm conducted the analysis of FDA’s import violation reports to “better understand the countries and products that pose the greatest risk for U.S. consumers.” “Overall, the patterns of refused import shipments correlate with the volumes of imports of various product categories and from various countries, but data are unavailable to perform a more precise analysis of this relationship, according to the report. The report divides fruits and vegetables into separate categories, resulting in fishery and seafood products appearing as the No. 1 category in terms of the most import refusals at 20.5 percent of all refusals. However, when combined, fruits and vegetables account for 26.6 percent of all FDA import refusals from 2005 to 2013. Using the report’s separate approach for fruits and vegetables, the top food product categories in terms of the number of shipments refused were:
- Fishery and seafood products, 20.5 percent;
- Vegetables and vegetable products, 16.1 percent;
- Fruit and fruit products, 10.5 percent;
- Spices, flavors, and salts, 7.7 percent; and
- Candy without chocolate and chewing gum, 7.2 percent.
For both fishery/seafood products and fruit/fruit products, the most common reason for a shipment to be refused was sanitary violations or, specifically, “filth.” Vegetables/vegetable products were most commonly refused because of unsafe pesticide residues. The most common violation for the spices/flavors/salts category was the presence of Salmonella bacteria. The use of an unsafe color additive was the most common violation for non-chocolate candies and gum. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)