A report that freely acknowledges that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “has neither the personnel nor the funding to physically inspect more than 1 percent of all shipments” looks at the results of FDA’s main border enforcement tool known as “import refusals.” chart-FDA-import-refusals-2005-2013jpgFDA is responsible for the safety of food imported into the United States and the report by USDA’s Economic Research Service worked with data FDA data from 2005 to 2013. USDA has been depicted as “worried” because fish and seafood is the category with the most refusals. But USDA economist John Bovay, author of the report, said that existing FDA categories were used in the study. “As you say, the total number of shipments refused for ‘vegetables and vegetable products’ combined with ‘fruit and fruit products’ exceeded the number for “fishery and seafood products”, over the period of analysis,” Bovay said. A single category for all fresh produce would have captured 26.6 percent of all refusals during the period. Instead a vegetable and vegetable products category took 16.1 percent and a fruit and fruit products category took 10.5 percent. The purpose of Bovay’s study was to look at overall patterns as well as shipments from Mexico, India, and China, which are the three countries with the most refusals. He found that the number of refusals by FDA inspectors have remained relatively stable from one year to the next. The volume of food being imported to the United States is increasing, meaning FDA resources and capacity to inspect, detain and refuse imported food have all leveled off. FDA does not randomly sample shipments, but instead uses a “prediction algorithm” that picks shipments for inspection. It also uses export alerts to determine when food should be detained without physical examination. Sanitary violations or just plain “filth” were the most common reason for refusals of both seafood and fruit. Unsafe pesticide residue was the cause of most vegetable and vegetable product refusals. The fourth largest category for refusals was for spices, flavors, and sales, which accounted for 7.7 percent of all refusals with the most common violation being the presence of Salmonella bacteria. The fifth largest category for refusals was for candy without chocolate and chewing gum, which accounted for 7.2 percent of all refusals, with the most common violation being unsafe color additive. FDA refuses the most shipments from Mexico, India, and China and each of those countries has distinct product categories that are subject to high refusal levels. “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, “ Bovay wrote. “Overall, “ he continues, “the patterns of refused import shipment 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.” Bovay said the nonrandom nature of FDA inspections makes it impossible to draw inferences about the relative safety of food produced in various countries. He does say the recurring pattern of import violations reveal patterns that “have repeatedly attracted the attention of FDA inspectors.” (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)