New food safety steps for imports urged

Laws already in place are probably sufficient if they are enforced

provided by University of Maine

ew steps to protect Americans from food-borne illnesses associated with imported products should be taken by the federal government, according to testimony delivered today to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs by Mary Ellen Camire of the University of Maine. Those steps include better enforcement of existing food safety regulations, more frequent and rapid testing of high risk foods, international expansion of a hazard analysis program and consumer education.

Camire is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Food Sciences and Human Nutrition. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the subcommittee chair; Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) is the ranking minority member.


Down on the farm


Although many countries have improved their food handling methods, Americans still face risks associated with poor sanitation on farms and in food processing facilities, Camire said. Discharges of raw sewage, she noted, pose threats to waters where shellfish are harvested.

"Unsanitary conditions in farm fields have also proven to be a major hazard," she said. "Even when portable toilets are available to workers, as opposed to some farms with open latrines or no facilities at all, hand-washing stations are often absent. Sanitizing hands by washing or through the use of chemical sanitizers will greatly limit the spread of such diseases."

Camire cited recent examples of food-borne disease outbreaks:

  • Cyclospora, bacteria which cause severe diarrhea and cramping, made 1,465 persons ill in 20 states and the District of Columbia in 1996. The problem was traced to Guatemalan raspberries.
  • More than 150 people in Michigan were infected by the Hepatitis A virus in 1997 after they ate strawberries raised in Mexico and processed in California. Over 30,000 cases of Hepatitis A occur from a variety of causes in the United States every year at an estimated cost of $150 million.
  • Salmonella from cantaloupes raised in Mexico caused two large outbreaks in 1989 and 1991.
  • New strains of E. Coli bacteria in domestic hamburger and unpasteurized juices have caused severe cramping and death in young children. Although no known U.S. outbreaks have been traced to imported foods, these bacteria have been found in food raised in Japan.

"Pathogens know no national boundaries," Camire emphasized. "A problem in one country will soon be a problem elsewhere. We must take care to insure a rational, scientific approach to screening imported foods rather than reacting to xenophobia."

Chemical contaminants such as pesticides and veterinary drug residues also pose potential risks, she added. "Preventive measures at the farm level are the best protection for U.S. consumers. U.S and international codes are probably sufficient, but action is needed to enforce such codes. Other governments should be held responsible for the actions of farmers and food processors within their jurisdictions. Non-compliant organizations should be penalized," she said.

Camire said that U.S. participation in international food safety agreements helps protect U.S. consumers, but she noted that countries with a good record in one food industry may do poorly in others. "Flexibility will be critical for success," she added.

While extensive testing of all imported foods for microbial and chemical contamination is unnecessary and too expensive, Camire noted that some types of food deserve greater surveillance. These include hand-picked produce, peeled or cut produce, sprouts, filter feeding shellfish and low acid canned foods.

More rapid testing methods also need to be developed, she added. A rapid, accurate test for salmonella has been developed by IDEXX Laboratories of Westbrook, Maine, reducing testing time from several days to 22 hours. Such tests are critical for foods with a short shelf life, such as some fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood.

Camire stated that there is no safety related need for food labels to list the country of origin. Nevertheless, agreements between the United States and other countries could require that all exporters demonstrate the safety of their products, and in such cases, country of origin labels could imply the relative safety of those products.

Camire noted that more consumer education would be helpful. Since they add nutrients and variety, imported foods are an important part of the winter diet for Americans, and many countries are improving their safety procedures through a U.S. program known as HACCP, or Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points. The program originated in the 1960s as a way to assure the safety of food for astronauts.

HACCP programs now exist for a variety of food processing industries in the United States, and other countries are adopting similar programs with U.S. help. "Our leadership in developing and implementing HACCP has improved food safety internationally," she said.

Camire cited the example of an employee of Indonesia's Directorate of Fisheries who came to the University of Maine to learn more about food safety. He tracked New England seafood as it was transported around the United States and implemented a similar program in Indonesia. He has since returned to Maine for advanced training in seafood inspection and HACCP.