Many of us enjoy a variety of food products each day and are accustomed to our go-to foods being in stores whenever we want to check them off our shopping lists. In order for grocers all over the country to keep shelves stocked with our favorite items, they must import a variety of fruits, vegetables, animal products and shelf-stable goods that are reliably available from producers. But what you may not know is that many of these staple foods are imported into the U.S.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the United States imports about 15 percent of its overall food supply. The FDA notes that “more than 200 countries or territories and roughly 125,000 food facilities plus farms supply approximately 32 percent of the fresh vegetables, 55 percent of the fresh fruit, and 94 percent of the seafood that Americans consume annually.” These numbers may surprise you. Why are so many foods imported, and how does the FDA regulate the safety of these imports in order to maintain a unified food system that renders imported foods just as safe as those produced within the U.S.?
Why do we have imports?
Many of our foods are imported due to the fact that they cannot be grown or manufactured in the U.S. at a rate that would meet our population’s productivity demands. Factors that impact productivity include the type of farming terrain, seasonal weather, and ecological and climatic considerations. These limitations call for many types of fruits that we encounter daily (think bananas, tomatoes, berries, pineapples, grapes and avocados), common vegetables (think bell peppers, squash, cucumbers and onions) as well as tropical products, such as cocoa and coffee, to all be imported.
How is imported food regulated for safety?
The cornerstone for the FDA’s best practices in food safety is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Established in 2011, FSMA provided the agency with an oversight system for food grown domestically and abroad. One of the strong directives for FSMA was to prevent imported food safety problems from arising before foods arrive at our border or end up in our grocery carts. According to the FDA, the U.S. Congress enacted FMSA in response to “the realization that preventable foodborne illness is both a significant public health problem and a threat to the economic well-being of the food system.”
The growth of importation has been challenging for the FDA, but FSMA has made great strides in the past ten years to help ensure stability in dealing with global food-safety-related trade issues. The FDA and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) work together to ensure that food safety and public health measures are not compromised due to international and bilateral trade matters.
As the rules of international trade continue to evolve with the global economy, the FDA has worked to develop oversight tools as part of a comprehensive approach to imported food safety. The agency’s strategy is guided by four goals:
Goal 1: Food Offered for Import Meets U.S. Food Safety Requirements
This first aim involves steps to ensure that the foreign supply chain meets U.S. safety requirements. The FDA works with food producers and transport services to support compliance with requirements.
Goal 2: FDA Border Surveillance Prevents Entry of Unsafe Foods
There are more than 300 active ports of entry for imported goods, and at each one the FDA utilizes surveillance tools such as screening, examination, sampling and testing to identify food safety issues at the border.
Goal 3: Rapid and Effective Responses to Unsafe Imported Food
In the event that unsafe food somehow still enters the country, the FDA has established traceability protocols to quickly identify these foods and remove them from the food system via its Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) network. CORE communicates regularly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) about emerging human food-related illness outbreaks and acts as the lead for the FDA in coordinating responses as well as related surveillance and post-response activities (for both imported and domestic foods).
Goal 4: An Effective and Efficient Food Import Program
The public health mission of the FDA’s food import program depends heavily on factors such as strong food production and monitoring, a robust workforce, advancing technology, and engagement from stakeholders including growers, processors, regulators and consumers.
We hope this information helps you feel more secure about the safety of your next fruit salad, bowl of guacamole or cup of iced coffee (all summer favorites around here) made from imported ingredients. As always, we encourage you to extend food safety into your home by practicing safe food handling when preparing meals and snacks.