Regulators Fail to Keep Tabs on Recalls of Imported Foods, Audit Finds

The people responsible for making sure that our food is safe have been sloppy about getting tainted imports out of supermarkets and restaurants, a government investigation has found.

As The New York Times reports, a federal inspector general’s audit of 17 recalls of imported foods revealed that the Food and Drug Administration often has failed to ensure that the contaminated products were taken out of the food chain.

In one case, more than three months passed from the time the FDA learned of the contamination until when a recall was launched. In addition, in five instances, investigators found, the FDA never conducted an audit to make sure that the recall actually was carried out. In the 12 other cases, the follow-up audits were late or incomplete.

The 17 recalls included salmonella-tainted cantaloupes from Honduras, listeria-infected mussel meat from New Zealand and frozen Korean fish containing the bacterium that causes botulism. While a major food safety law signed in January by President Obama gives the FDA more authority, proposed budget cuts could limit the use of the new powers.

As a separate Times story based on a special report from the FDA suggested, the agency is struggling to keep up with booming imports. The FDA is supposed to police what this year is expected to be 24 million imported shipments of food, drugs and medical devices, up from 6 million 10 years ago. In the food industry, that means nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables, and three-quarters of all seafood, consumed in the U.S. is imported.

The challenge of monitoring imported drugs also is substantial. More than 80 percent of the active ingredients for drugs sold in the United States are manufactured overseas, mostly in Asian factories that are rarely inspected by the FDA. Many medicines, including aspirin, are no longer produced anywhere in the Western world.

The FDA’s commissioner, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, has proposed creating coalitions of international regulators to enhance product safety. The agency also will develop a global data information system to help regulators communicate with one another.

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