What You Can Do to Protect Against Unsafe Imported Food and Products

Buy local. There are several easy ways to buy produce, meat and poultry produced locally. Not only will you get fresher foods, but you will strengthen you local economy and help the environment as well. And even domestically produced food can travel thousands of miles before reaching your dinner table.

  • For instance, you can find farmers markets in your community and their dates and schedules. Be sure to ask if the food being displayed is local, as some participants buy products from brokers to resell. Often you can arrange to buy larger quantities of meat or poultry from the sellers at a farmers market for a lower bulk price.
  • Alternatively, you can join a CSA – Community Support Agriculture farm program – and have locally-grown food delivered weekly throughout the growing season! Find a CSA farm near you. Many of these farms are organic. This system has consumers "buy in" as shareholders of a farm in the spring and then have delivered to them a portion of each week's harvest. You will find the cost is less than buying similar food at a grocery store. And, you get produce picked that morning – and you can choose eggs, flowers, honey, etc. You can decide how many shares you want to buy depending on the size of your household.

Check labels on products and signs in stores to see if you can learn a product's country of origin and also to discern if a product labeled as a reliable brand name may be a counterfeit. If a country has had significant food or product safety problems, you might choose to avoid products from that country. While many non-food consumer products, have mandatory country-of-origin labeling, implementation of a federal law passed in 2002 requiring country-of-origin labeling on beef, pork, lamb, fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood and peanuts has been delayed until 2008. Currently only prepackaged retail-ready foods, and certain non-processed seafoods sold in the United States are required to have country-of-origin labeling. Some stores and grocery chains have adopted voluntarily country-of-origin labeling. You can shop at stores that voluntarily include country-of-origin labeling or give you more information about the food source. Request that stores you frequent start labeling products now. Unfortunately, with import inspection rates so low, checking the product's origin is not sufficient. The recent problems with contaminated toothpaste from China involved counterfeit products – they were labeled to look like a major brand and listed South Africa is the origin. Many counterfeit products can be detected by simply reading the label. Look for spelling errors or anything that seems out of the ordinary and if you find anything unusual, don't use it. Call the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission at 1-800-638-2772 ext. 650 to report suspect products. Look at the ingredient label to determine if any of the ingredients have been recently reported as tainted. When problem ingredients are uncovered, find out more information.

Make a habit of checking recall lists and signing up for safety alerts. Get connected with lists of the latest recalls of everything from food and medicine to motor vehicles. Bookmark this page in your web browser and check it regularly to stay informed. Bookmark these watchdog groups – Consumers Union, PIRG, Food and Water Watch, and Food Safety.gov and where available sign up for alerts and feeds - to get more information about the latest unsafe food and products.

Advocate for improved imported trade policies, food safety policies and country-of-original-labeling in Congress. Find out more and sign up to get food safety and trade related news from Global Trade Watch. What steps do we recommend?

  • No more new NAFTA expansions adding to the trade and food safety crisis. If a majority of either the House of Representatives or the Senate vote no on the four pending FTAs (Peru, Panama, Colombia, and South Korea), they cannot go into effect.

  • A thorough review is needed now of our existing trade agreements to carefully identify the provisions that are causing problems so that we can make the vital fixes to the existing agreements – and do better in the future. It is unacceptable that trade agreements set limits on the food or product safety standards or the amount of border inspection. If we are to enjoy the benefits of trade, we must remove these non-trade limits on our basic health and safety that have been inserted into recent trade agreements. Specifically, our current trade agreements must be modified to remove provisions that:

    • Limit the ability of countries to inspect imported foods at whatever rate government safety agencies determine is needed to ensure safety;

    • Require countries to import food that is equivalent, not equal, to domestic safety requirements; and

    • Limit the level of food safety protection countries choose to implement.

These changes are vital so that the various proposed improvements to U.S. food safety policy relating to imports are not subject to challenge under U.S. trade agreements.

  • A new process for formulating our trade policy so that we can get good agreements. These four NAFTA expansion agreements were negotiated using a procedure called "Fast Track," which delegates Congress' exclusive constitutional authority over trade to the president. This system empowers a few special interests to make the rules − short-circuiting normal legislative processes and stifling the voice of consumers and others who must live with the results. The Fast Track procedure is how we got into NAFTA and WTO. In the future, we need to replace Fast Track with a new process that allows Congress and the public to ensure our future trade agreements suit our needs – including a key power that Fast Track removes: ensuring that Congress gets to vote before a president can sign a trade agreement.
  • The FDA needs new authority to examine and approve other nation's regulatory systems and food safety laws as the same as ours or better, before imports from a country can enter the U.S. market. Currently, 80 percent of food products we eat come under FDA jurisdiction. They do not need any pre-approval from FDA to be imported. In contrast USDA, which regulates less than 20 percent of the foods we eat, has authority to approve or disapprove countries and inspect plants abroad. With similar authority, FDA border inspectors might have a fighting chance against the flood of food imports.
  • Border inspection of imported food and products must be dramatically increased. Congress must require – and fund – greatly increased FDA and USDA border inspection. Other developed countries such as Japan and the European Union inspect a much larger percentage of high risk imports than we do. It is unconscionable – and dangerous – that the United States inspection rates for produce and seafood is less than one percent and meat and poultry inspection is only 11 percent. The percent of U.S. food safety dollars going to the FDA has remained flat when the growth in imports requires greatly increased oversight by U.S. officials and increased inspection funding.
  • Accessible consumer information about what imported foods are rejected and why. In preparing this report, we became vividly aware of how difficult it is for consumers to access the necessary information about imported food and U.S. inspection findings to ensure their own safety. The FDA and USDA must establish easily searchable data bases that list, by food and country, what products are rejected and for what reasons.
  • Country-of-origin labeling of ALL imported products so consumers can make informed choices. Congress should immediately implement fully the 2002 law that requires such labels on meats, fruit and vegetables. In recent surveys 92 percent of Americans demanded country-of-origin labeling which has been stalled by agribusiness, food processing and mega-retail interests.