FOOD MILES/Professor P. Vincent Hegarty

The following headlines in Food Safety News on January 22, and 23, 2022 relate to food safety during its transportation. The length of the food transportation chain is sometimes quantified as food miles.

FDA will continue scaled back inspections for foreign food through March.

Foodborne illness and food imports among top concerns for Australians

Danish control finds food transport violations

Food miles are the number of miles traveled from where food is grown and/or processed until it arrives to us as consumers. This term was devised by Professor Tim Lang in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s. It is used as a factor in measuring the environmental impact of food. It is also a variable in determining the safety of food. The longer food is in transportation the greater the possibility of contamination by pathogenic microorganisms (Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, etc.) and by toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, etc.

Unless we grow all our food on farms and gardens, much of our food has probably traveled thousands of miles from all parts of the world. The following numbers for U.S. food imports give an indication of the food miles traveled:

Today more than 200 countries or territories and roughly 125,000 food facilities plus farms supply approximately 32 percent of the fresh vegetables, 55 percent of the fresh fruit, and 94 percent of the seafood that Americans consume annually. But this increasingly globalized and complex marketplace has also placed new challenges on our food safety system. (FDA)

Among those new challenges are continued annual increased importation of food and a lack of resources to fully implement food safety inspections — Imported Food Safety: FDA’s Targeting Tool Has Enhanced Screening, but Further Improvements are Possible. U.S. Government Accountability Office(2016).

Changes enacted in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA, P.L. 111-353) gave FDA new tools and authorities to ensure imported food meets the same safety standards as food produced in the United States. However, FDA continues to examine about 1% of the total number of food import lines each year—rates similar to that prior to FSMA. Congressional Research Service (2020).

Some of the more than 200 countries the U.S. imports food from do not have a national food safety regulatory system. Some national food safety regulations are out of date, and some are not up to international standards. Many countries have inadequate food safety inspection services and inadequate food testing laboratories. Yet, that food travels thousands of food miles to be rejected at the port of entry. But only 1% of U.S. imported food is inspected by the FDA.

The following alarming numbers show the huge number of food miles wasted in transporting unsafe food and damaging the environment. FDA Refusals of Imported Food Products by Country and Category, 2005-2013  

            The following food product categories accounted for the majority of import shipments refused:


            1. Fishery and seafood products (20.5 percent of all refusals);
            2. Vegetables and vegetable products (16.1 percent);
            3. Fruit and fruit products (10.5 percent);

            4. Spices, flavors, and salts (7.7 percent); and
            5. Candy without chocolate and chewing gum (7.2 percent).

            For both fishery/seafood products and fruit/fruit products, the most common reason for a shipment to be refused was sanitary violations or, specifically, “filth.” Vegetables/vegetable products were most refused because of unsafe pesticide residues. The most common violation for spices, flavors, and salts was the presence of Salmonella bacteria. The use of an unsafe color additive was the most common violation for non-chocolate candies and gum.

            Of the 142,679 violations reported, 57 percent were for adulteration (i.e., a problem relating to safety issues, packaging integrity, or sanitation), and 41 percent were for misbranding, which may include untruthful or misleading labels or labels that lack English. Although adulteration generally poses a greater risk to human health than misbranding, improper labeling, such as a failure to identify an allergen, may lead to illness and fatalities in some cases.

            The countries with the most food shipments refused by FDA—Mexico, India, and China—have distinct sets of product categories (vegetables, spices, and seafood, respectively) that have been subject to the most refusals. The persistence of the same problems, year after year, in food import shipments indicates that FDA’s inspection regime has not completely deterred producers and importers from offering food shipments for import that violate U.S. laws. Overall, the patterns of refused import shipments correlate with the volumes of imports (of various product categories and from various countries), but data are unavailable to perform a more precise analysis of this relationship.

Yes, the three articles listed above helped to put food miles into a global food safety perspective. Yes, we do swallow a lot of trust that our domestic and imported food is safe.  

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