The USDA has released a report detailing the foods the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) most often rejects at our nation’s ports for problems. They are seafood/fish products, vegetables/vegetable products, and fruit/fruit products. The countries that have the most shipments refused are Mexico, India, and China. Data for this report was analyzed over the years 2005 to 2013 and was compared to data from the years 1998 to 2004. In addition, refusals of spices, flavors, and salts doubled between 1998 to 2004 and 2005 to 2013.
The FDA only inspects about 1% of the 60,000,000 tons of food imported into this country every year. Inspectors target certain facilities and firms and certain types of products that have a higher risk for pathogenic bacterial contamination or other type of adulteration or misbranding. The government uses risk-based criteria to figure out which shipments should be inspected. The refusals reveal “recurring patterns of import violations in food products that have repeatedly attracted the attention of FDA inspectors.”
All of the imported foods that are rejected by the FDA are reported in the Operational and Administrative System for Import Support (OASIS) database. Each violation is listed with a charge statement such as “adulteration” or “misbranding”.
An “adulterated” food contains poisoning ingredients, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, unsafe color additives, pesticide residues, or filth. A “misbranded” food has a false or misleading label regarding ingredients, origin, manufacturer, or quality. Some of these factors threaten health, such as undeclared allergens, while others, such as substituting cheaper ingredients in a product, do not.
From 2005 to 2013, FDA refused the entry of 87,552 shipments after determining that the products violated one of more U.S. regulations. Fishery/seafood products were 20.5% of all shipments refused, and vegetables/vegetable products were 16.1% of refusals. Four other categories each were 5% of import violations. They are: fruit/fruit products, spices/flavors/salts, non chocolate candy/chewing gum, and bakery products/dough/mix/icing.
While the number of fish products refused were about the same in both 1998 to 2004 and 2005 to 2013, the fruit and vegetable import refusals fell. But the refusals of spices/flavors/salts more than doubled from 3.8% in 1998 to 2004 to 7.7% in 2005 to 2013.
Adulteration accounted for 57% of all violations. The most frequent adulteration violation in 2005 to 2013 was for the presence of Salmonella bacteria. The products contaminated with Salmonella were 83.7% of pathogen/toxin adulteration violations, up from 63.0% in 1998 to 2004. Most Salmonella-contaminated products were in fishery and seafood (42%) and spices/flavors/salts (33.2%).
The second most common violation for pathogen/toxin contamination in 2005 to 2013 was for Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Violations for Listeria contamination in fish products were 59.4% of all products, more than double the number from 1998 to 2004. But Listeria contamination in imported cheese and cheese products were 32.0% in 2005 to 2013, down from 49.6% in 1998 to 2004.
Chemical contamination is another category that doesn’t get as much press. The products most likely to be contaminated with chemicals were vegetables/vegetable products. Almost 75% of those violations were for unsafe pesticide residues, which is down 90% from 1998 to 2004.
The most commonly refused products by country correlate with the types of foods they export. Mexico is the leading exporter of fruits and vegetables to the U.S. India is the leading exporter of spices, and China is the leading exporter of seafood. As would be expected, the most frequently refused exports from Mexico were vegetables/vegetable products. Spices/flavors/salts from India were most commonly refused, and fish/seafood products were most commonly refused from China.
The amount of food imported into the U.S. continues to grow, and the same problems show up with each shipment. This may suggest that FDA’s inspection regimen doesn’t deter producers from offering products that violate regulations. At the same time, the number of shipments refused has declined relative to the volume of food imports. That may reflect FDA’s limited resources in this area or it may be due to improvements in compliance with U.S. laws.