Import inquiry

A current congressional investigation raises some serious doubts about the safety of imported food.

An allegation that private U.S. laboratories have selectively withheld test results on imported food from the federal Food and Drug Administration reveals what seems like a serious flaw in the nation’s food safety network.

The U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce has sent letters to 10 testing labs suggesting that the labs have been complicit in efforts by food importers to sidestep FDA requirements. And why not? The labs are hired and paid by the importers. Why wouldn’t they choose to keep their paying customers happy?

The labs are suspected of using a number of tactics to help their customers avoid proper FDA oversight. One is to simply keep testing samples until a satisfactory result is achieved. That result is then forwarded to the FDA, and the others are discarded. It also is alleged that importers that receive a failed result from one lab would simply hire another lab to continue testing until a positive result was achieved.

These practices came to the attention of Congress earlier this year when the CEO of one private lab testified that the labs don’t always tell the FDA about tests that indicate imported food is contaminated. Although labs are required to sign a statement that they are submitting all the work that was done on a sample, the CEO said, the importers that hire the labs actually control who gets the test results.

This apparent case of the fox guarding the hen house could have serious consequences for American consumers. The congressional committee has specifically asked for information about food that was found to be contaminated with chemicals or bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella or listeria. If four samples of a food import are found to be contaminated with salmonella, but only the fifth positive sample is ever forwarded to the FDA, what happens to the source of the other four? That’s a riddle that American consumers shouldn’t have to ask themselves.

If food importers have such tight control over the testing system that the FDA and the American public can no longer trust test results – or the safety of imported food – the agency has failed in one of its most basic and essential duties. If such “mistakes” occur when only a profit motive is involved, it boggles the mind to think what could happen if there was a case of intentional sabotage.

Such uncertainty about food safety, coupled with the rising cost of transporting food over long distances, may bolster the case of those who advocate buying local food from local producers.