Special Report | February 2012 | By Sam Oches

The Foreign Exchange

Operators must know how to ensure the safety of their imported foods.

Imported foods pose a threat to consumers unless their safety is secured.
Bookmark/Share this post with:
Email this story Email this story
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama just more than a year ago, but companies that import foods from other countries still must work hard to ensure their supply systems are in top shape to stop contaminations from crossing U.S. borders.

Edible Arrangements is one such concept. It imports a large amount of its menu from outside the U.S.

The Connecticut-based fruit concept and boutique, which has grown to more than 1,000 units around the world, includes ingredients like oranges, strawberries, grapes, honeydew, cantaloupe, and pineapple, that are either grown in limited supply in the U.S. or not at all.

“We’re very concerned about food safety,” says Mindy Porter, director of the Fruit Reliability Excellence System for Edible Arrangements. “Without food safety, Edible Arrangements would cease to exist. So we take that very, very seriously. We want to make sure our customers don’t have to worry about their safety when they eat here.”

The safety of imported foods is rightfully a major concern for many in the foodservice arena. The FDA estimates that 10–15 percent of all food—including nearly two-thirds of fruit and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood—consumed in the U.S. is imported from other countries.

The dangers of selling tainted imported foods are all too real for some restaurant companies. In 2006, Taco Bell faced a potentially disastrous situation when dozens of customers fell ill after eating green onions from Mexico that were contaminated with E. coli. The company’s swift response to the outbreak, which included removing green onions from its stores and closing several locations, prevented further catastrophe.

Another Mexican restaurant chain wasn’t so lucky when it served tainted imports to customers. In 2003, some 600 people were sickened and four people died after contracting hepatitis A from a single Chi-Chi’s location in Pennsylvania. Officials believed the food at fault was also green onions from Mexico. The incident effectively drove a stake through the heart of the company, which had already filed for bankruptcy but closed its last U.S. location not long after.

While the amount of imported foods used at quick serves varies across the industry—multiple companies contacted for this story used little, if any—those that do bring in outside ingredients are working diligently to protect their safety.

“We want to know everything [international suppliers are] utilizing or not utilizing in their fields,” Porter says.

“We want to know the growing conditions. We look at the water supply. The new food safety act that the government passed last year is a big help to this, because all shipments have to go through a lot of checkpoints before they’re saying that [the foods are] safe enough to pass the test.”

FSMA updates the FDA’s food safety standards to increase the level of protection for both domestic and imported foods under the FDA’s watch. Those foods, which make up nearly 80 percent of the nation’s supply, include seafood, produce, and processed foods, among other things. The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees meat, poultry, and egg imports, and its inspection standards under its Food Safety and Inspection Service are much more rigorous than the FDA’s.

“If you’re in the restaurant industry and you are using an imported food product, you have so much at stake.”

Before FSMA, foreign food facilities were required under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 to register with the FDA and give the FDA prior notice before sending foods to the U.S. The FDA could then inspect registered facilities and any foods that crossed into the U.S. With outbreaks like those at Taco Bell and Chi-Chi’s in the last decade, however, pressure has increased for the FDA to do more to ensure the safety of foods.

A number of new processes under FSMA improve the safety of imported foods. First, FSMA requires that the FDA establish offices in foreign nations that will periodically inspect food facilities. The Act also establishes a Foreign Supplier Verification Program that requires importers to make sure their food meets U.S. safety standards; creates an accreditation process for third-party auditors; gives the FDA power to require that certain foods be certified by a government representative or auditor in the country of origin; and creates a Voluntary Qualified Importer Program that offers to expedite the review of an importer’s shipment if they meet certain criteria.

Sebastian Cianci, spokesman for the FDA, says the new standards under FSMA take a prevention-based approach to food safety.

“To achieve food safety, you can’t just do it at the end step,” Cianci says. “It really starts from the farm, whether that’s a land farm where you’re harvesting produce, or whether it’s an aquaculture farm with seafood. You have to maintain the appropriate prevention controls throughout the growing and harvesting and processing and handling of the food as it goes from farm to table.”

Still, the FDA’s system isn’t foolproof. For starters, the FDA still only checks about 2 percent of all foods that come across U.S. borders. The organization relies on a Web-based system called PREDICT to monitor foods. The system electronically scans codes that have been attached by the importer, codes that upload product information, threat potential, and historical patterns into the system. Red-flagged products are then tested further.

Pages