WASHINGTON: Chances are that about 15 percent of the food you eat — more if your diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables and cheese — comes from abroad, and the government is taking steps now to make it safer.
New rules the Food and Drug Administration proposed Friday would make U.S. food importers responsible for ensuring their foreign suppliers are handling and processing food safely.
Imported fruit and cheese has been responsible for many recent outbreaks, including 153 recent Hepatitis A illnesses linked to a frozen berry mix sold at Costco last month, as well as four deaths last year that were linked to listeria in Italian cheese. Imported fruits or vegetables are also the top suspect in an ongoing outbreak of cyclosporiasis, a gastrointestinal infection that has so far sickened 321 people in 13 states.
Other illnesses in the last several years have been linked to imported papayas, mangoes and nuts and spices used as ingredients. An estimated 3,000 people die from food-related illnesses every year.
The proposed rules, required by a sweeping food safety law Congress passed in 2010, are meant to establish better checks on what long has been a scattershot effort to guard against unsafe food imported from more than 150 countries. Only around 2 percent of imported food is inspected by the government at ports and borders.
The guidelines would require U.S. food importers to verify that the foreign companies they are importing from are achieving the same levels of food safety required in this country. The government estimates that the rules, which would also improve audits of food facilities abroad, eventually could cost the food industry up to $472 million annually.
Like rules for domestic farmers and food companies released earlier this year, the idea is to make businesses more responsible for the safety of the food they are selling or importing by proving they are using good food safety practices.
They might do that by documenting basic information about their suppliers’ cleanliness, testing foods or acquiring food safety audits. If they fail to verify the food is safe, the FDA could stop shipments of their food.