WASHINGTON -- As Americans have come to expect year-round supplies of cheap food, the system for ensuring food safety increasingly depends on the vigilance of importers and foreign governments -- a problem highlighted by the contamination of pet food by an industrial chemical from China, experts say.
Imports have soared, but the food safety system has not been similarly adjusted. The government has a disproportionate number of inspectors checking meat in the United States, even as Americans eat increasing amounts of fresh vegetables and frozen seafood from abroad every year.
The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to ensure the safety of most of the food that enters the United States. But imports of food subject to FDA regulation have increased fivefold since 1997, and the agency has not been able to keep up, say former government officials, industry representatives and food safety scholars.
Today, because of budget cuts, the agency is able to check only a tiny fraction of the 20 million imported products it is responsible for monitoring each year.
The FDA can inspect overseas plants, but it rarely has the money or staff to do so, say former officials and food safety scholars. Instead, the agency relies on spot checks at ports like Baltimore's. Nationwide, its inspectors review just 1 percent of shipments.
The FDA carries out fewer than 8,000 food inspections a year -- down from 35,000 in the 1970s. And despite heightened concerns about bioterrorism, the number of FDA inspectors is no higher than it was on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's not the kind of protection that consumers want," said William K. Hubbard, a former FDA assistant commissioner who is leading a group of industry, medical and consumer groups seeking more agency funding. "I think people believe government needs to be protecting the food supply, not foreign suppliers."
Investigators suspect that Chinese firms added melamine, a plastic derivative not approved for use in food, to boost the price of wheat gluten that pet food makers use to thicken products. Investigators say they believe the chemical caused the deaths of at least 16 pets and the recall of more than 60 million products.
The scare has fed fears about the security of the American food supply -- not only for pets, but for people too -- and raised questions about the effectiveness of the government's safety system, especially now that consumers get more food from abroad.
The government is unable to trace the origin of "the products that make us the sickest and send thousands to the hospital every year," said Donna Rosenbaum, a founder of Safe Tables Our Priority, an advocacy group based in Silver Spring.
Adulteration overseas of a key pet food ingredient could easily have happened to a product for human consumption, say former government officials and food safety scholars.
The FDA has far fewer food inspectors and less regulatory authority than the Agriculture Department, which monitors meat and poultry. The disparity in the size and powers of the two agencies dates to the early 1900s, when beef consumption -- and contamination problems -- predominated.
Tight funding has left the FDA unable to check imports and prevent contamination as it should, say former FDA officials, industry representatives and scholars.
"They're just keeping their noses above water all the time," said Susan M. Stout, vice president of federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association.
She said members of the trade association, which include leading food companies, asked the FDA to step up efforts to combat contamination, only to be told that the agency doesn't have the money.
Because of these constraints, the FDA has tried to focus on the riskiest imports -- shipments from companies or countries that persistently fail inspections or on problem foods.
Last month, the agency barred imports of chocolate-covered marzipan from Mexico, frozen mahi-mahi from Vietnam and couscous from Ivory Coast, according to FDA records.
Reasons for the actions included high pesticide levels, improper labeling, salmonella contamination and decomposing ingredients.
The FDA has also tried to assure the safety of food imports by working with other governments. It has crafted agreements with foreign food safety officials on regular monitoring of overseas farms, plants and processors. It has also encouraged the adoption of international standards for food handling, processing and shipping.
But those efforts have faltered because of tight funding by Congress. Over the past four years, the FDA's food safety budget has not kept up with inflation, according to agency figures.
"Under the Bush administration, the FDA has been underfunded, and we're starting to see the effects of that," said Mark Mansour, a lawyer in Washington who represents food companies.