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Imported food can sometimes arrive with danger

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—With food coming in from all corners of the earth, the simple, necessary, daily act of eating in America has become not just an exercise in the delicious, but also the awe-inspiring:

Peaches in the dead of winter. Golden curries from Asia. Cookies that stay fresh for months. Powders that turn a morning smoothie into fuel for a marathoner.

But the global dinner plate also comes with dangers, as has been painfully demonstrated in the recent scare from the discovery of the industrial chemical melamine in pet food—and now, with experts warning it may have spread to the human food chain.

"This whole debacle where you've got a plastic getting into a food supply shines a huge spotlight on a broken, broken system," said Elisa Odabashian, director of food safety for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

According to consumer and food safety experts, a vast array of foods and ingredients pours into the United States every year with little or no scrutiny. Much of the food comes from countries with less stringent regulations on pesticides, processing and sanitation.

In the past, grapes from Chile, raspberries from Guatemala and onions from Mexico have sickened or even led to the deaths of consumers.

In recent days consumers learned that pet food contaminated with the melamine was fed to hogs destined for market.

The revelations pushed worries over imported foods and ingredients to a new level and forced consumers to ask troubling questions about aspects of the food supply they may have taken for granted:

Who's making all the ingredients and additives going into food these days? What's going into products whose names we often can't even pronounce? Who's keeping an eye on safety?

Only about 1 percent of food from other countries undergoes inspection at U.S. points of entry. Often, reviews include little more than a paperwork check.

"The big red strawberries in the middle of gloomy January are very pretty," Odabashian said. "But they're very likely being produced in countries with far less regulation than what we have here."

For years, the United States exported more food than it imported. Recently that balance shifted. In 2006, the nation exported $62.6 billion in food items and imported $75.1 billion from 175 countries, a jump of more than 60 percent in the last decade, according to inflation-adjusted trade data from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service.

The bulk of what Americans eat still is produced in this country. About 15 percent comes from other countries, said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. For some categories imports run higher, he noted. For example, 80 percent of seafood, 50 percent of tree nuts and 45 percent of fruits eaten in this country come from elsewhere.

In addition, a growing portion of foods processed here contain ingredients of foreign origin, with China an emerging major supplier.

How much arrives from abroad is anyone's guess. Currently, seafood is the only food required to carry a label showing the country of origin.

Packages of processed foods must only list where the "final transformation" of the product took place, according to Allen Matthys, a regulatory specialist at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Food companies must keep records on their ingredient suppliers, but they don't have to disclose that information to the public—or even the government—unless regulators suspect public health is at risk, said Benjamin England, an attorney who worked at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 17 years.

The nation's food inspection system is disjointed and inadequate, consumer and food safety experts said. Recent U.S. outbreaks of E. coli from contaminated spinach and salmonella from tainted peanut butter illustrate the need for a stronger food safety network, they said.

The FDA has jurisdiction over 80 percent of food produced in this country, including seafood, fresh produce and processed foods.

Yet it has only several hundred inspectors for at least 60,000 food processing plants across the nation, Doyle said. In contrast, the USDA, which oversees meat and poultry, has 7,600 inspectors for 7,000 U.S. plants.

When it comes to imports, the inspection picture is even worse.

The FDA is charged with assuring the safety of roughly 17 million product shipments each year, about two-thirds of them food. The volume has more than tripled since 1999, while the nation's inspection force has remained static in size. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government created new food safety measures, but it has followed through on few.

Under agency targets, about 1 percent of import shipments are supposed to get a close look from FDA officials. Such inspections can range from simply reviewing paperwork to actually sending a product to a lab for testing, England said.

Inspecting the food coming into this country is a worthwhile effort, FDA records show.

In March, FDA inspectors rejected 1,526 shipments—mostly food but also drugs and medical devices—from 75 countries.

China had 215 rejected shipments and India 279. A shipment of "Chilli" powder from Bangladesh was ruled "to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food."

The problems aren't limited to Asian exporters. A load of smoked salmon from Norway tested positive for Listeria, an often-lethal bacteria.

Many food contamination problems come from unsanitary or faulty processing.

But last week's revelation about melamine and related chemicals turning up in two commonly used protein ingredients—wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate—raised a different specter: deliberate contamination. Federal officials are investigating whether the proteins were spiked with the chemicals to make them appear to have higher protein content.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer group in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday called for a ban on imports of wheat gluten, rice protein and other grain products from China until the FDA can certify their safety.

"This is a warning sign our system is really vulnerable," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the center.

Protein sources are so widely sprinkled across Americans' diets in products with long shelf lives that it would be impossible to do an effective recall if the human food supply got contaminated, DeWaal said.

In an unprecedented move, the FDA announced last week it would start testing imports of six proteins that are used not only in pet foods, but in breads, baby formulas, protein bars, and a huge array of other foods.

Targeted proteins are mostly used to make foods more nutritionally functional and appealing to consumers.

A creamier soup, a sturdier meatless sausage, a more nutritious baby formula—all can be achieved with ingredients made from soy, wheat or corn.

With constant pressure to cut costs, U.S. food companies increasingly turn to foreign suppliers for lower priced soy, corn and wheat protein ingredients.

"It's cheaper, and some places do an excellent job of marketing," Rushing said.

Consumer watchdogs believe labels should carry more information about where ingredients originate. But some industry experts said it would be impractical to do so.

"The label would be as long as your arm," said Daniel Fabricant, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Natural Products Association in Washington, D.C.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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