Many agencies share responsibility for ensuring the safety of the increasing volume of imported food, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection division.
But in a report made public recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found those agencies' efforts are hampered by what the GAO said are gaps in enforcement and collaboration.
The GAO found that while importers report information about food shipments to the Customs agency, that agency's computer system does not notify FDA or FSIS when shipments arrive at the border, increasing the risk that contaminated food passes through border checkpoints undetected.
The report found that Customs and FDA do not use a unique identification number for importers, making it difficult for FDA to track high-risk imports and importers. The government watchdog also said that FDA lacks the authority to fine importers who don't comply with its regulations. As a result, importers can ignore rules against selling food shipments before they are cleared by FDA.
"A high and growing portion of the American food supply is imported, so it is essential that those foods meet U.S. safety standards," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Border inspection provides an important -- and sometimes the only -- food safety checkpoint. GAO describes a food safety framework for imports that doesn't keep the regulators 'in the loop' to the extent that they can inspect risky products before they are released to the public."
In July, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act with broad, bipartisan support. That measure would give FDA the authority to require food processors to design and implement food safety plans, provide specific safety standards that growers would have to meet, establish and pilot test tracking systems for foods, and require FDA to visit inspect food facilities regularly. It also addresses problems identified in the GAO report.
The House bill calls for closer collaboration between the Customs and Border Protection and the FDA, requires each importer to have and use an unique identification number that is registered with FDA, and gives FDA authority to impose civil fines. In the Senate, similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), is pending.