DO YOU KNOW YOUR FOOD?

FOOD

A lot of what Americans eat comes from other countries, and as the number of food recalls rises, experts urge consumers to get smarter about where their food originates.

By Ben Larrison, CTW Features

If you are what you eat, you’re probably getting a little less American every day.

The United States’ food supply has become increasingly foreign over the past fifteen years.  A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are now available year-round, long after their seasons have passed locally.  Bananas from Ecuador, beans from Mexico, and apples from New Zealand are waiting for you comfortably in the aisles of your neighborhood grocery store.  Seafood is another popular import: Shrimp, for one, comes in from Thailand, China, and Indonesia, and Chinese catfish and eel are prone to show up on your dinner plate.

Chances are your morning beverage also comes from overseas; there are Colombian coffee and Indian tea, and the sugar you add may be from the Caribbean.  More of a juice person?  We’ve got apple juice from Argentina and orange juice from Brazil.

Even the oils you cook your food in come from outside the United States: Canola oil is Canadian, and olive oil is from countries like Spain, Greece, and, of course, Italy.

“We are importing an enormous number of food products,” says Patrick Woodall, a policy analyst for New York-based Food & Water Watch.

From 1983 to 1985, imports amounted for just nine percent of fresh vegetable consumption in the United States.  By 2003 to 2005, they were up to 16 percent, and that number is on the rise.  Many of the products we import are things that can be grown in the U.S.  More than one third of the tomatoes we consume are grown overseas, as are nearly half of the cucumbers, one-third of melons like honeydew and cantaloupe, and more than half of the garlic.

This boom in food imports has brought the luxury of a wider variety of healthy options no matter the month.  But with these benefits come hazards.

“The risks obviously are the possibility of picking up some exotic food-borne disease, getting sick, and in some cases dying,” says Larry Busch, director of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards at Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Part of the issue is the FDA and USDA’s inability to monitor the incredible amount of food brought into the country every day on ships and planes.  According to Woodall, less than two percent of the edible goods are actually inspected, focusing mostly on items that have a higher risk for contamination, such as seafood and produce.  Inspectors have found veggies that are rotten, filthy, and contaminated with pesticide or salmonella.  Fish, in particular, has presented problems, with the U.S. importing 80% of its seafood.  Mike Doyle, director of the Center of Food Safety at the University of Georgia, Athens, says that inspectors have found “an awful lot” of salmonella in shrimp – up to 8-10% by some estimates – due to the use of chicken manure as a fertilizer at some aquaculture plants.  Most tuna is imported and has at times been found to contain high mercury levels.  And just last year, the government placed a temporary ban on farm-raised shrimp, catfish, and eel from China because they had been treated with harmful veterinary medicine and antibiotics.

“We import about a billion pounds of fish per year, and we look at about two percent of that,” Woodall says.  “And what that means is that 980 million pounds of fish are being imported without even a cursory glance from the FDA.”

Seventy-six million Americans get some sort of food-borne illness every year, though it is unknown how many of those are the result of foreign-grown and raised food.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors food illness rates in the United States, “hasn’t really been trying to differentiate between whether it’s foreign foods and domestic foods that are causing problems,” Doyle says.  Experts say the government’s ability to properly inspect food coming into the country has declined because of budget cuts, while at the same time the number of imports has increased.  “I think it’s probably slightly true (that imported food has more safety issues than food from the U.S.)” Busch says.  “On the one hand, the sheer volume of imported food has been growing at an incredible rate, and the other thing to remember here is the safer the food supply gets, the more these incidents are going to show up in the media.”

A few years ago, Chinese imports came under greater scrutiny after four dogs and ten cats died due to tainted pet food, leading to massive recalls.  This skepticism soon spread to food, and a study in Consumer Reports magazine found that 92% of Americans want to know their food’s country of origin.  The 2002 Farm Bill included the stipulation that fish, beef, lamb, pork, fruits, and vegetables had to be identified by their country of origin.  But to date, only seafood has been subject to the program known as COOL (country of origin labeling.)  Busch says that while there may be public interest, “I’m not sure knowing where it’s from is a good proxy for knowing whether or not it’s safe.”

As far as safety is concerned, Busch says that most people automatically assume the food they buy from the supermarket is going to be safe.  And, he adds, “I would say that on the whole, people tend to be more concerned about the nutritional value of their food than where it comes from.” Some experts recommend buying locally at places like farmers’ markets, as that food is subject to strict domestic food regulation that does not necessarily apply to imports.

Here are some ways to eat well and stay safe:

Try to keep tabs on what foods are presenting problems and where the tainted goods have been coming from, be they domestic or foreign.  “We do know that based on the FDA’s surveillance data, food from certain countries in particular tends to have a much higher occurrence of defects,” says Mike Doyle, director of the Center of Food Safety at the University of Georgia.  India, Mexico, and China are currently among the leading countries for rejected food shipments.

To get the latest updates on import refusals, go to www.fda.gov/ora, click on “Import Program,” and then select “Import Refusal Report.”  From there, you can search by product or country for all rejected goods, including food.

Proper preparation and careful cooking of food can help to reduce the chance of contracting a food borne illness.  “Many of the microbiological issues can be solved by good handling aspects,” Doyle says.  “If you properly cook foods, you will kill shigella and you will kill salmonella.”

Don’t be afraid to buy foreign foods.  The inspections and regulatory practices in the product’s country of origin tend to get the job done.  “For the most part, (the system) works extremely well,” says Larry Busch, director of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards at Michigan State University.