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Food Safety and Imports: An Analysis of FDA Import Refusal Reports

by Jean C. Buzby, Laurian Unnevehr, and Donna Roberts

Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-39) 47 pp, September 2008

Interest in the safety of imported foods has increased over time, not only because the volume of food imports is increasing in the United States, but because the imported share of the total U.S. food consumption is also rising, particularly for perishable, minimally processed foods. Food safety concerns about food imports may have far-reaching implications-reducing demand for certain imported products, altering international food trade patterns, and limiting access to U.S. markets for some foreign exporters.

What Is the Issue?

Data limitations constrain what is known about the safety of imported foods. As a first step to understanding this issue better, ERS researchers analyzed U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refusals of food import shipments for 1998-2004 by food industry group and by type of violation. Here, the term violations refers to products that appear to violate one or more of the laws enforced by FDA, such as those dealing with adulterated or misbranded products.

What Did the Study Find?

The study revealed recurring food safety risks and other problems (e.g., inadequate labeling) in certain types of imported foods. The findings, however, do not indicate the actual level or distribution of food safety risk that imports may pose to American consumers because FDA's process for selecting shipments for inspection or other administrative actions is not random. Instead, FDA relies on risk-based criteria to guide its actions, including data on products and manufacturers with a history of violating U.S. import regulations. In essence, import refusals highlight food safety problems that appear to recur in trade and where the FDA has focused its import alerts and monitoring efforts. The top imported food categories refused due to food safety and other violations under FDA law were:

  1. Vegetables and vegetable products (accounting for 20.6 percent of total violations);
  2. Fishery and seafood products (20.1 percent); and
  3. Fruits and fruit products (11.7 percent).

An examination of violations in these three categories reveals that refusals for sanitary violations in seafood and fruit products, pesticide violations in vegetables, and unregistered processes for canned food products in all three categories were persistent over time.

Last updated: Saturday, May 26, 2012

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