Published on 02/28/08

Dangerous imports

By Allie Byrd
University of Georgia

In 2004, for the first time ever, the United States imported more food than it exported. If this trend continues, a University of Georgia expert predicts cases of foodborne illness will rise in the U.S.

“The occurrence and size of foodborne outbreaks in the U.S. will likely increase dramatically as more of our food is imported,” said Michael Doyle, director of the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga. “The differential keeps growing and growing.”

The U.S. food supply overall is safe, but more than 70 million cases of foodborne illness are reported each year, Doyle said. Fresh vegetables are becoming a major vehicle for the transmission of foodborne pathogens, especially E. coli.

“Outbreaks associated with fresh produce will likely continue as we consume more fresh produce,” Doyle said.

Sliced vegetables are easily contaminated, he said, because microbes on the vegetables’ surfaces can attach to the wounds created by slicing.

“Treatments for fresh-cut produce, such as chlorine, are not fully effective for killing harmful bacteria,” Doyle said. “Neither producers nor consumers have an effective treatment available for produce.”

Poor refrigeration in homes and at some grocery stores also contributes to contamination, along with ineffective cleaning and disinfecting.

Imported vegetables are often contaminated due to unsafe farming practices, like using untreated human and animal waste to irrigate crops, he said. “Many developing countries don’t have the same hygiene and sanitary standards for producing and processing foods like we have in the U.S.”

Most food exports into the U.S. come from Canada and Mexico, he said. But Brazil and China are becoming major agriculture producers and exporters.

A large percentage of nuts, garlic, cucumbers and tomatoes are imported into the U.S. from India, China and Mexico. “India is a primary provider of tree nuts,” Doyle said. “If you eat cashews, they probably came from India.”

The increase of imported foods has overwhelmed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, he said. Its inspectors are only able to visually check one percent of shipments.

There are also issues surrounding the safety of imported fish. Some 480 million pounds of salmon and 1.1 billion pounds of shrimp are imported annually.

Most imported seafood is farm-raised. Many foreign fish producers use excessive levels of antibiotics, including many that are not allowed for fish in the U.S. They also use fecal waste that is contaminated with harmful microorganisms, Doyle said.

“Safety standards for imported foods must be changed,” he said. “If they aren’t, we are likely to see even more foodborne illness outbreaks in this country.”

Allie Byrd is a writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.