The Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown Monday on firms shipping contaminated and mislabeled food products to the United States.
To demonstrate the magnitude of the problem, the FDA estimated that 77% of the 27,000 imports it detained for federal safety violations in 1991 were food.
Under the new effort, run jointly by the U.S. Customs Service and the FDA, the federal government will seize or destroy contaminated products, rather than simply detain them temporarily. It also can prohibit importers from shipping their products to the United States until they prove consistent compliance with U.S. laws.
Firms with a pattern of violations will receive warning letters giving them 15 days to inform the FDA of corrective action. Seven such letters already have been sent.
"The risks of playing fast with American imports and the health of American consumers are going up," FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler said in a speech to the National Food Policy Conference.
"In short," he added, "we're focusing on professional law breakers and rogues who count on the hectic pace of international trade to get away with substandard goods and excessive profits."
The stepped-up inspection efforts will include all the nation's 395 ports of entry.
The government's tough talk on imports was commended by food industry trade groups, such as the National Food Processors Assn.
But a spokeswoman for the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a Washington-based consumer group, called the FDA's effort "inadequate."
"It's taken them a long time to do very little," said Ellen Haas, the group's executive director, adding that she was uncertain that the FDA has the resources to carry out its plan.
The intensified inspection effort comes at a time when the number of foreign imports under FDA jurisdiction--a category that also includes drugs, cosmetics and medical devices--has risen 200% in the last two decades to 1.5 million shipments in 1991. The FDA estimates that raw and processed foods make up 75% of the total.
A recent example of an FDA seizure involved 2,800 cases of "canned abalone-like shellfish" that was being shipped into San Francisco from Chile.
"About half of the cases were mislabeled as tomatoes," Kessler said. "Some cases had no label at all. Worst of all, our investigators found that many of the cans were swollen, an indication that the food was decomposed and unfit to eat."
In the past, such shipments discovered by FDA inspectors would be detained temporarily and then rejected for entry. Unscrupulous firms then might try to slip the problem cargo into a different U.S. port, a process know as "port shopping."
Under the program announced Monday, such shipments would be destroyed.
Kessler acknowledged that because of budget limits, the FDA's past efforts to assure the safety of food imports has amounted to only a "thin line" of protection.
But the agency decided to focus more attention on imported foods because of the vastly increasing volumes reaching this country.