Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SENA14: FSMA & Imported Seafood

From contaminated hamburger to tainted lettuce, we have all seen the massive recalls in the news, with millions of pounds of product taken off the shelves. A significant number of us have been inflicted with a bout of food poisoning at some point in our lives. Though for most of us this is merely an unpleasant experience, it can be deadly for some, including some of our most vulnerable, such as the elderly. Food safety is an essential concern, one that impacts the entire world.

But who is primarily responsible for food safety? In an article, The Ethics of Food Safety in the Twenty-First Century, by Jeffrey Burkhardt, a Professor of Agriculture & Natural Resource Ethics and Policy at the Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, it states that "Although individuals and personal entities have a role to play in ensuring a safe and secure food system, governments are the primary agents to secure, or 'keep,' this public good." This is due, in large part, to the great complexity of the international food chain, where much of it is out of the hands of the average consumer. Most of the problems with food safety globally are associated with bacterial/viral contamination or spoilage but other hazards exist as well such as pesticides, industrial chemicals, and foreign material like waste.

As many police makers seem to be in agreement with Burkhardt, the U.S. government recently took a major step in efforts to increase food safety. On January 4, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law, what many consider one of the most significant reforms of food safety since the 1930s. Previously, the focus of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been geared much more to handling problems once they arose, but with this new law, there was a shift in focus to greater prevention.

The new law also granted the FDA greater powers and authority, along with greater responsibility, including in reporting requirements. The comprehensive law deals with imported and domestically raised foods of all sorts, including seafood. However, many elements of the law are still in flux as aspects are still being fine tuned by the FDA. In some areas, the deadline for the comment period is still sometime in the future, so those parts of the law have not yet been set. It is almost as if they passed a law which really can't do anything yet.

What is the extent of food-borne illnesses, especially from seafood? According to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), it is estimated "that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases." The most common pathogen leading to illness is the norovirus (making up about 58%), followed by salmonella (at 11%). There is also a fascinating study conducted by the CDC, using data from 1998-2008, that estimated 1451 deaths from 17 different food commodities. When this total was broken down, 278 of those deaths were attributable to poultry, 240 from vegetables, 140 from meat and only 94 from seafood. That at least indicates the seafood industry is less lethal than other food industries, though it doesn't indicate the extent of sickness that might be caused from tainted seafood.

Current statistics indicate that the U.S. imports about 91% of the seafood they consume, meaning that monitoring the food safety practices of theses foreign producers is important. Unfortunately, it appears that the FDA only inspects about 1% of the seafood that enters our country, meaning that a significant amount of tainted seafood could be making it past the FDA. In addition, it appears that the FDA has only inspected about 1.5% of foreign seafood facilities. The FDA simply does not possess sufficient resources to conduct a significant number of inspections which means our food safety is threatened, and that needs to change.

According to the PEW Health Group, nearly 80% percent of our imported seafood is sourced by only ten countries. When seafood is rejected by the FDA, salmonella is the pathogen responsible for most of those rejections. The most common reason cited for rejection is filth, which appears in almost half of the refusals of imported seafood. About 60% of U.S. seafood imports come from Asia and from 2009-2010, the countries with the most FDA rejections were Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Philippines, and Thailand. The total amount of seafood rejected from those five countries was about 2.47 million metric tons. Can you imagine how much more would be rejected if the FDA inspected even only 5% of imports?

At this time, seafood consumption is still low in the U.S., and has been decreasing over the last several years. For example, back in 2010, the average annual consumption was 15.8 pounds but in 2012, that had dropped down to 14.6 pounds. Obviously, with less seafood consumption, the chances of getting sick from tainted seafood decreases. However, there is a major push to get Americans to eat more seafood, at least twice a week. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people should actually consume each year about 26 pounds of seafood. Eating more seafood is a scientifically proven way of significantly reducing one's chance of heart disease. And consumers will only iincrease their seafood consumption provided they can safely source that seafood. If the food safety of imported seafood remains endangered, that could lead to even less seafood consumption.

The important question now is whether the new FSMA will help increase food safety or not. Just peruse the FDA's Imported Seafood Safety Program and you will see that it is rather extensive. The FMSA emphasizes safety programs in the importing country, including establishing a Foreign Supplier Verification Program to ensure the importer meets current U.S. food safety standards. The FMSA also creates an accreditation process for third party auditors. The effect could be to lessen some of the burden on the FDA, spreading out the responsibility to other parties who will assist in promoting food safety. However, the increased complexity of all these new rules and regulations is an obstacle for seafood exporters.

However, as I mentioned previously, not all of the rules and regulations are set yet. Not a single importer that I spoke to at the Seafood Expo North America told me that the FSMA was an issue for them yet. I also spoke to John Laxson of the ABC Research Laboratories, a food safety company, which conducts a significant business in combating FDA detentions of imported foods, including seafood. He stated that more seafood is detained than any other food product. I asked whether the FSMA had increased their business but he stated it hand't, because no one knows yet what is going on with the act. Until the rules are all set, little will change, and it will probably be about five years before everything is in place.

Ultimately, it is still too early to determine the ultimate effect of the FSMA and we can only speculate as to what might happen. It seems that seafood exporters will ultimately have to navigate the complex requirements of FSMA and may need to retain the services of expects to help them comply with the new regulations. They could try it on their own, like with new software such as GForce which has been designed to more easily integrate the importing process for Chilean Sea Bass, though it is customizable and can be used for other seafood too.

This will likely lead to added costs to seafood exporters, and of course those costs will probably ultimately end up being passed on to the consumer. As seafood already has problems with being considered too expensive by many consumers, the added cost from the FSMA could turn more consumers away from seafood, or at least away from imported seafood.

Will imported seafood be any safer under FSMA? Again, it is too early too say with any surety but it seems that it has potential. What we can be sure, is that the effect of the FSMA on imported seafood will be a topic of discussion for years to come as the rules and regulations become more clear, and companies learn what they will face. So, we will need to revisit this issue periodically and regularly.

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