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Panel: To Safeguard Food Imports, It's Not Just About Inspections

Locavores, a word with you. Local food may be gaining traction in all kinds of ways, but a report out today from the Institute of Medicine serves as a stark reminder of just how globalized our food system truly is.

Jim Riviere, chair of the committee that wrote the report, drove this point home at a press briefing this afternoon. "Globalization is not going to reverse," said Riviere, who is a professor of pharmacology at North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Today, around 85 percent of the seafood, 39 percent of the fruits and nuts, and 18 percent of the vegetables that Americans buy come from abroad, according to the IOM. And as we reported last month, it's the fish and spices from abroad that are most likely to make us sick.

This is a crucial point for Riviere and the other committee members, because they were tasked with figuring out how the developing countries that export food and medicines to the U.S. could do a better job at making sure the stuff they send us is safe.

For a long time, food safety experts have complained that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't have enough port inspectors to adequately catch contaminated imports before they reach consumers. One of the aims of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law last year, is to overhaul our 1930s-era food inspection system, which relies on about 2,000 inspectors to monitor shipments at the ports.

But it's unreasonable, according to Riviere, to expect them to inspect all 20 million different lines of food, drugs and medical devices coming into this country from abroad.

"No matter how much inspection we do, we are always going to find flawed products," Riviere said. "We're not saying we need to cut back on inspections, but all resources can't be spent on inspection."

Instead, the IOM says the onus is on the FDA to help the exporting countries improve their own regulatory systems and supply chains, so that everyone can be more confident that what they're producing is safe.

Last fall, we reported on an FDA trip to China that was meant to help highlight how our regulators can collaborate better with Chinese food suppliers.

That kind of coordination is critical, the IOM says, because so many gaps exist within the regulatory systems in countries like China. Supply chains are murky, and regulation is fragmented among a variety of different agencies that often don't communicate well with each other.

What about countries that do have strong regulatory systems? The FDA could do more to help these countries do their jobs by sharing inspection report data with them, the panel noted. "It doesn't help us that we and the European Union are inspecting one manufacturer and not another," Riviere said.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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