We put this story on the calendar back in September, before melamine-tainted milk started making headlines in China (with some products turning up on Asian grocery store shelves here in the US. Find KQED reporter Oanh Ha’s excellent reporting on that story here, here, and here). We’d been planning to focus on criticism of FDA’s handling of imported fresh produce, and had to recast the piece when it became clear that the concerns around food safety were much broader.
Another plan was shelved when the FDA declined to let us visit any of their local facilities, including a testing lab in Alameda that had been scheduled for closure only a year ago – right around the time that Mexican jalapeno peppers sickened 13,000 people and devastated the domestic tomato industry. (Officials blamed tomatoes before narrowing in on the peppers.) Luckily, the press office from the Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol generously agreed to show us around a Port of Oakland warehouse, where –- I quickly discovered — there were no FDA inspectors to be found. That’s because FDA inspectors do their Port work largely in front of computer screens, scanning shipping manifests for products they believe warrant physical inspection.
That means two things: One, the FDA relies largely on the exporters’ own description of what’s in the product. As several people told me, it’s an “honor system.” Two, almost none (less than one percent) of the imported produce is ever tested for salmonella, e.coli, or any of the other human health threats we worry about.
When we finally talked to FDA Director of Food Safety David Acheson by phone from Maryland, he made the point pretty clearly: FDA knows its food safety program needs work. But that’s going to require more and sustained funding. It’ll be interesting to see how well the agency can make that case come January.
Listen to the Food Safety radio report online.