July 16, 2008

Food Safety Inspectors Struggle With More Imports

By Laurence Iliff and Alfredo Corchado

LAREDO, Texas - Day after day, Mexican trucks line up as far as the eye can see for entry to the U.S. at the World Trade Bridge, carrying everything from raw tomatoes, broccoli and fresh basil to frozen seafood. They also bring in salmonella, listeria, restricted pesticides and other food poisons.

Customs and Border Protection officers take less than a minute per truck to determine which products enter the U.S. and find their way into grocery stores and restaurants across North Texas.

Most trucks are waved through. The avalanche of imported goods - especially food from Mexico - is too much for the limited number of inspectors at the nation's 300 ports of entry to effectively screen, critics say. The sheer volume makes it impossible for them to carry out their mission: protecting the U.S. food supply and American consumers.

Concerns about the nation's food inspection system are gaining urgency - especially as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks at Mexico as a likely source of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened more than 1,000 people in the past two months. The FDA last month sent inspectors to three Mexican states - Jalisco, Sinaloa and Coahuila - and Florida to check farms and packing plants.

The great majority of the food that crosses the southern U.S. border is safe, U.S. officials say. But a surge in imports in recent years means that the system of border inspections is badly strained and in urgent need of repair, the officials acknowledge.

Inspectors at the border are tasked with enforcing hundreds of regulations from more than 40 government agencies. Just a tiny percentage of agricultural products, seafood and manufactured goods is inspected, the critics say.

"We have this huge growth in imports, this huge growth in trade; at the same time we have severely cut back on our regulatory agencies and their ability to do their job, especially the food portion of the Food and Drug Administration," said Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

"If they are only checking 1 percent of the stuff and finding lots of problems, then ... there are a lot of problems that are never caught," she said.

What is getting stopped, critics say, is representative of what is getting through.

Overall, about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply and 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed are imported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Mexico is the second-largest foreign source of agricultural products and seafood for the U.S. - moving to No. 1 during the winter months and filling about 60 percent of the supermarket produce aisle. It's the worst offender when it comes to food shipments turned away at the border by U.S. inspectors, a review of food rejections shows.

In Laredo, trucks sent to a dock for inspection are greeted by a hired crew that unloads samples of broccoli, tomatoes and dried corn husks used for wrapping tamales. Customs and FDA inspectors check for poisons or pests that could damage U.S. agriculture.

On another dock, manufactured goods are hauled out of rigs by forklift and inspected for safety issues, such as lead in toys. Even tigers on their way to a U.S. circus tour are checked out for potential health risks.

"Whatever is put in front of you, you are going to make sure it meets all of the regulations in order to be introduced into the country," said Mucia Dovalina, a veteran inspector and public affairs liaison for Customs and Border Protection.

The problem, officials and analysts say, is the result of sometimes substandard agricultural practices south of the border, and a U.S. food inspection system that has become so overwhelmed that President Bush endorsed a 50-step plan that would put more emphasis on inspections in the countries of origin.

The in-country system would put U.S. inspectors in foreign countries or use third parties to check products before they are shipped to the United States It also would give the FDA mandatory recall powers over food products. Currently, the agency negotiates "voluntary" recalls.

"For many years, we have relied on a strategy based on identifying unsafe products at the border," Mr. Bush said late last year. "The problem is that the growing volume of products coming into our country makes this approach increasingly unreliable."

Both consumer groups and an internal FDA study group said the proposed Bush plan to fix the system "within available resources" is far too modest.

"We can state unequivocally that the system cannot be fixed 'within available resources,'" the agency's subcommittee on science and technology said in a report late last year. The subcommittee called the inspection rate "appallingly low."

In fairness to Mexico, U.S. food producers were the subject of far more expansive recalls last year than foreign producers, including recalls of California spinach that tested positive for E. coli and was blamed for three deaths, and of 22 million pounds of frozen beef hamburger patties, also because of a dangerous strain of that common bacteria.

"I must emphasize that by and large, the food traded is very safe," said Suzanne Heinen, the USDA's counselor for agricultural affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "We have very few problems, especially when you consider the volume of trade that crosses the border every day."

Still, food imports remain on Washington's radar - particularly in light of the latest salmonella outbreak.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt announced plans recently to open a food safety monitoring office in Latin America, similar to three being planned for China. He did not say which country might house the office, but he did say that a March salmonella warning against Honduran cantaloupes, along with the tomato scare, showed the need to be on the ground in exporting regions.

"What it demonstrates is that when these incidents occur, we need a quick response," he said.

Originally published by Laurence Iliff and Alfredo Corchado The Dallas Morning News.

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