Ensuring The Safety Of Imported Food Ingredients

A flattening world, consumer price resistance and overtaxed regulators require new approaches to ensure the safety of imported food ingredients.

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Is a 13 percent increase enough?

No, said a coalition of voices in a press conference in the U.S. Capitol in December. Sens. Dick Durbin and Edward Kennedy, Grocery Manufacturers Assn., Food Marketing Institute, American Frozen Food Institute, the Coalition for a Stronger FDA/FDA Alliance, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America all called on the White House to increase FDA’s food safety resources.

“For years, Congress has pointed out the FDA is understaffed and underfunded,” says Durbin. “I am calling on the administration to commit to doubling FDA funding over the next five years. We simply cannot leave American families vulnerable when it comes to food safety.”

China syndrome

In response to the melamine contamination, a number of new food safety measures were introduced by China. A four-month crackdown resulted in the closing of 3,191 unlicensed and substandard food makers, the seizure of 4.9 million tons of banned pesticides and a pledge to spend $1 billion on food safety by 2010. Oh, and the execution of the head of China’s food and drug agency, who was convicted of taking bribes.

Hailed as the biggest breakthrough, Chinese officials agreed to implement a tracking and data-sharing program for a limited number of foods, drugs and medical devices bound for the U.S. Under the agreements, the U.S. will be able to track certain food and drug exports from China as part of a broader registration and certification process designed to allay worries about the quality of Chinese products.

Wang Daning, China’s chief inspector of exported food, says his agency, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) with a staff of 7,000, is working hard to strengthen oversight. He suggests China’s food exports have been unfairly tarnished.

“Only about 12,700 companies in China are approved by AQSIQ to export food products, just a fraction of the roughly 450,000 food processing companies in the country,” he said. “I have seen the records for 3½ years of Chinese exports. The quality is very stable, as more than 99 percent of products consistently meet standards.”

Tyson’s Rice says AQSIQ could be the FDA’s biggest ally in protecting the U.S. consumer. Until the Dec. 11, 2007 agreement between the U.S. and China, however, U.S. government agencies did not recognize the AQSIQ and its export certificates.

“China requires all exported food must originate from AQSIQ-registered plants and be certified by the local China Inspection and Quarantine Agency (CIQ),” Rice says. “Certified food processors notify the CIQ when they are producing for export. CIQ inspectors must be present frequently during the process and must check random samples of the finished product.” Rice calls the system “rigorous.”

We are not alone

Every country and its regulatory agencies are dealing with the problems of globalization and imports. It makes sense for governments to work together to solve them. That would put a big dent in the global food safety problem.

Ultimately, the responsibility is no different than that applied within the U.S. Every food company must be responsible for the purity of its end products, and that starts with careful management of suppliers. As Rice said, Tyson relies mostly on itself to ensure its Chinese food products and ingredients are up to quality standards.

Everyone in the supply chain has a responsibility. U.S. manufacturers must demand strict standards, and foreign suppliers and their governments must meet those demands.

The experts we talked to for this article suggest U.S. companies should inspect overseas plants to verify compliance, conduct supply-chain verification, put track and trace technologies in place and continually review practices. They must keep the pressure on suppliers of imports and work hand-in-hand with FDA.

“Increasingly, Americans are buying in a global market, and we need to work at all levels to improve quality,” says Leavitt. “We need to build safety in at the front end – not inspect problems out. This means building in standards for safety at the start, where products are made.”

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