Global food trade is expanding due to improvements in transportation, infrastructure, and marketing networks as well as increased consumer demand. Increases in per capita income and population also have contributed to worldwide expansion in food trade. Along with growth in international food trade, food safety has become progressively important to industry, consumers, and policymakers.

The globalization of the food supply means new food-safety risks can be introduced into countries (for example, emerging bacteria), previously controlled risks can be reintroduced into countries (for example, cholera), and contaminated food can be spread across greater geographic areas, causing illness worldwide. Food-safety concerns may reduce demand for certain products, alter international food trade patterns, and limit market access for some exporters. Food-safety issues present challenges for policymakers to guard and/or enhance national food supplies.

Information about the safety of imported foods is limited by available data. To better understand this issue, 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. The study found that import refusals highlight food-safety problems that appear to recur in trade and in locations where FDA has focused its import alerts, examinations, and other monitoring efforts. The data do not necessarily reflect the actual distribution of risk in foods. However, the data show that some food industries and types of violations are consistent sources of problems over time. The three food industry groups with the most violations were vegetables (20.6 percent of total violations), fish and seafood (20.1 percent), and fruits (11.7 percent). Violations observed over the entire time period include sanitary issues in seafood and fruit products, unsafe pesticide residues in vegetables, and unregistered processes for canned food products in all three industries. See:

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

In an earlier study, ERS researchers reported on how food safety regulations and the perception of risk are different among countries and how this can lead to persistent trade frictions and even reduce food trade. These differences may also lead to increased dialogue between countries, resulting in improved food safety systems. Although little disruption to trade has occurred for food safety reasons (considering the total volume of food trade), trade issues or crises related to food safety are wide ranging. These issues and crises challenge policymakers and industries to both protect domestic food supplies and nurture international markets. Meanwhile, consumers in developed countries are demanding safer food. Risk reduction measures and quality certification programs can pre-empt food safety crises and also better position exporters in emerging overseas markets. However, coherency between trade and food safety goals requires public intervention and investment and/or private costs.

The study "Food Safety and Trade: Regulations, Risks, and Reconciliation," discusses how countries have good reasons for different food safety regulations (e.g., different tastes and preferences, food safety history, ability to pay for risk-reducing strategies). It also discusses how countries tackle food safety risks both individually and collectively through international organizations.