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
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:
- Vegetables and vegetable products (accounting for 20.6 percent
of total violations);
- Fishery and seafood products (20.1 percent); and
- 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.