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Trouble with Imports: Why the Tempeh Salmonella Outbreak is a larger Problem

When Smiling Hara Tempeh Managing Executive Chad Oliphant began buying starter culture used to make the popular bean product tempeh from Maryland-based Tempeh Online, he surely did not expect it to be contaminated with Salmonella (or anything else, for that matter). And, why should he? Like most people in his position, I imagine Mr. Oliphant was acting under the belief that the products purchased from overseas exporters have been vetted for safety issues. Of course, this outbreak has shown that Smiling Hara Tempeh should have tested its product prior to sending it out for consumption, but it is also serves as an example of a burgeoning trend of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to imported food.

Food products now come from over 250,000 foreign establishments in 200 countries. Indeed, 15 percent of fruits, 20 percent of vegetables, and 80 percent of seafood comes from overseas. And, with the consumption of imported foods growing, we have seen an increase in foodborne illness outbreaks linked to them.

In just the past year consumers felt the pain of multiple import-related outbreaks: Turkish pine nuts, Mexican papayas, and Guatemalan cantaloupe were a few products linked to Salmonella outbreaks in 2011. Contaminated sprout seeds imported to Germany from Egypt caused the disastrous E. coli outbreak that sickened thousands and killed 50 in Europe, including some Americans in Spring 2011. Most recently, alongside the tempeh outbreak, a nationwide Salmonella outbreak was traced to sushi made from imported Nakaochi scrape (aka tuna Scrape), ground tuna meat scraped from the ribs and backbones on tuna. The contaminated tuna scrape was imported from India and distributed by a California company to supermarkets and restaurants all over the country. Despite labels indicating the product should be cooked, it was used in sushi rolls and ceviche—dishes served raw. Over 300 Americans who ate the raw imported tuna scrape became ill with Salmonella infections.

Perhaps it should not be altogether unsurprising that we are experiencing foodborne illness outbreaks tied to imported foods, given the lack of oversight afforded to imports.

While forty-five percent of import-related foodborne illnesses are tied to seafood, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently inspects only 1 percent of seafood that enters the country. Of the seafood inspected, 51 percent gets rejected due to spoilage, physical abnormalities, or pathogen contamination. All other imported food fares only slightly better, with 2 percent becoming subject to inspection.

So while thousands of people were likely sickened by imported food last year, my dire prediction is that we’ll continue to see a rise in import-related foodborne illness outbreaks. That is, unless there are upgrades to current FDA import policies.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in this thinking.

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the US FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which included a substantial revamp of food safety procedures required for domestic food production and imports. If Funded the FMSA will increase the number of import inspections; importers will be specifically required to have a program to verify that the food products they are bringing into this country are safe as well as verify that their suppliers are in compliance with reasonably appropriate risk-based preventive controls.

Unfortunately, there are some very real hurdles to clear before FSMA can take effect.

A critical defect in FSMA is the absence a funding mandate. This means that while FDA may be required by law to implement improved food safety procedures, there will not be enough money to put those policies into action. Currently, the funding for FSMA lies in the hands of Congress, though as FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has pointed out: so far Congress has been unwilling to allocate FDA the funds necessary to validate the legislation.

Of course there is another roadblock that preempts even the likes of Congress. The Whitehouse Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is responsible for approving draft rules such as the provisions established in FSMA. The FSMA rules pertaining to imports were supposed to be finalized by January 4, 2012, but five months later they remain in OMB, apparently stalled.

Where does this leave us?

We will continue to see a rise in the number of imports.

Americans will continue to eat more imports

Without funding and enacting FSMA import rules, we will continue to see more outbreaks associated with imports.

As for Smiling Hara Tempeh, perhaps if OMB had been on schedule and Congress had appropriated sufficient funding, 83 people would not have become victims of Salmonella poisoning. In the meantime it will be up to American importers to ensure the foods they are bringing in from other countries are safe.


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