Thursday, November 20, 2008

Food for Thought

When we sit down to stuff ourselves next week on Thanksgiving, we will reflect upon our good fortune to have the food in front of us. Yet, perhaps we should be more cautious of what exactly we will be gorging ourselves on. The US currently imports billions of dollars worth of food from foreign producers and manufacturers, and the government only inspects a small portion of that. There have been some initiatives to address this gaping hole in the US food supply, but so far the effort has not been enough to secure the nation's food supply.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it is opening offices across China to monitor and inspect food that is destined for US markets. The offices, opening in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, will be staffed by both American and Chinese officials who will not only inspect food, but also work with the Chinese to establish certification of products bound for consumption in America. This comes at the end of a widely publicized scandal involving the use of melamine in children’s formula that has reportedly killed four Chinese babies, left thousands of other children in the hospital, and led to recalls and import bans of Chinese products in Asia, Europe and the US.

Although the latest scandal has come out of China, there have been concerns coming from other nations as well. For instance, this summer tomatoes and jalapenos from Mexico were responsible for sickening over a thousand salsa-loving Americans. The concerns about food safety are as numerous as our trade partners. For this reason, the FDA has plans to open up a number of other offices in Latin America, Europe and India for the same type of monitoring as is going on in China.

Although these efforts have been couched in the issue of general food safety, much of this activity has been fueled by fears about attacks on the nation’s food supply. After 9/11, the government and the media began a long exercise of contemplating and addressing any and every possible aspect of infrastructure that could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack, and our food was one major worry. As a result, the FDA set up a number of programs, action plans and studies that fall under their Food Defense initiative. With only 1% of imported food being inspected by the FDA inside the nation’s borders as of 2007, the step to go directly to the producing country may be a good alternative.

Unfortunately, with only eighteen employees in Beijing, it will be impossible for US officials to effectively inspect all, or even a representative amount, of the products coming from China. Moreover, it highlights the problems in trying to secure any type of product imported into America. With a large, open economy like the US (which is also a net importer), it will be impossible to ensure the safety of products without slowing the flow of products to an inefficient level.

This leads to a number of questions: Is there a trade off between having an open economy and being secure? If so, which one should win out? Would people be willing to put up with delays and possibly higher prices associated with the extra time and effort that would go into a more thorough inspection process of our food supply? Would foreign suppliers and their governments feel like they were being singled out, or that our procedures were really put in place to be a non-trade barrier to their products? These questions, though tough to answer, will need to be addressed. Because, as those affect by the tainted food scandals of the recent past can attest, food imports can be an issue of life and death.

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