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 proposed Friday by the Food and Drug Administration would make U.S. food importers responsible for ensuring that 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 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 passed by Congress 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. The government inspects only around 2 percent of imported food at ports and borders.
The guidelines would require U.S. food importers to verify that the foreign companies they import from achieve 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, could eventually cost the food industry up to $472 million annually.
The proposed rules exclude meat, which is mostly produced domestically and is regulated by the Agriculture Department, and seafood, which is already subject to regulations on import safety.
The FDA will take comments on both the domestic and foreign food safety proposals in the next several months before issuing final rules.