12:47pm

Wed June 8, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

China Draws More Scrutiny For Food Safety Lapses

What do apples, tilapia and garlic have in common?

Americans consume a lot of them, and they happen to be the top three foods our country imports from China.

The rapid rise of China as a food exporter to the U.S. worries the folks at Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, which put out a report on problems with food safety in China and the implications for American consumers.

The group calls for changes to international trade agreements to safeguard public health and increasing funding to the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture for inspections.

Food safety problems — ranging from melamine-tainted milk to pork containing a banned additive — have become commonplace in China. And the Chinese government has vowed to take stern action against violators of food safety laws and regulations, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday. Indeed, late last month, the country's Supreme People's Court said death sentences are appropriate for people found guilty of food safety violations that result in people dying, Xinhua reported.

What can the U.S. do? Giving FDA the tools to prevent contaminated imported foods from getting to the U.S. in the first place is one of the key components of the Food Safety Modernization Act that became law late last year.

"Congress has said we really do need to completely shift what is frankly an antiquated approach to imports," Michael Taylor, FDA's associate commissioner for foods told reporters at food safety briefing Tuesday.

The last time the food import laws were updated was in the 1930s — long before we had to have our Pocky Sticks fix or anything resembling a global food system.

And the current system consists of a thin line of inspectors at the ports trying to police about 12 million food product entries a year.

In fact, today, Taylor says, 15 percent of all the food in U.S. imported, as much as 75 percent of seafood, as much as 50 percent of fresh fruit, and up to 25 percent of vegetables is imported.

Among other things, the new law would shift the food safety burden to importers by requiring they certify that their products meet U.S. domestic food safety standards. Assessing those certifications is going to take a whole lot of training, both here and abroad, Taylor said.

However, its not at all clear FDA will get the money it says it needs to get the job done. Congress is not in a spending mood.

And, finally, just in case you missed it, one of the stranger examples of tainted food in China involves exploding watermelons. Don't believe us? Check out the video.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.