Each year, more than 75 million Americans get sick from eating spoiled or contaminated food. The result: approximately 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, according to the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. The vast majority of contaminated food is produced in the United States. But since a growing share of food products — estimated at 13 percent — is sourced abroad, importers need to be vigilant and vet their suppliers.

The Problem Is Widespread

Total U.S. seafood imports have increased from 1.4 million tons in 1996 to 2.3 million tons last year. Recently, several types of farm seafood from China, the world's largest exporter of seafood, effectively were suspended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after alarming quantities of an antibiotic were found in catfish, eel and shrimp, among other products. And that's not all. Chinese exports — from tires and toys to dog food — have been found to have problems.

Many other countries also are affected. Reports indicate that 100 people in Panama died after consuming cough syrup tainted with a Chinese-produced additive containing diethylene glycol, a component of car antifreeze. In turn, American regulators studied the situation and determined the toxin was in U.S. imported toothpaste sold under discount brand names.

In August 2007, the Food and Drug Administration refused 187 shipments from China. But during the same month, it also refused 1,180 shipments from 77 other countries. Whether it’s tires from China, crabmeat from Mexico or candy from Denmark, the number of tainted imports likely will continue to rise as the value of U.S. imports increase.

Protect Yourself

If Americans were unaware of this problem before the recent surge of tainted imports, it now has become top of mind, especially in Congress. As a result, several bills have been introduced, including the Food and Drug Safety Act, which would severely penalize importers and manufacturers who introduce adulterated food into interstate commerce; the Consumer Product Safety Act; the Children's Product Safety Act; and the Lead Toy Free Act.

U.S. importers, as well as retailers, restaurateurs and virtually any other establishment that resells imported goods or incorporates them into their final products will need to become familiar with new legislation. And to help prevent problematic foreign products from entering the U.S. market and to limit liabilities, importers should implement certain procedures.

Steps To Take

According to Nicole Bivens Collinson, Trade Negotiations and Legislative Affairs Practice Group Leader in the Washington, D.C. office of the international law firm Sandler, Travis and Rosenberg, there is no action that would immunize an importer from being sued, but there are ways to shift or share liabilities with suppliers, and establish that the importer has exercised the highest degree of care.

For example, importers should know all suppliers, ensure no subcontracting is conducted without approval, advise suppliers of their responsibilities for satisfying U.S. rules and regulations, and if possible, obtain acknowledgement of this, she says. Additionally, importers can insert provisions into their supplier contracts stating that any post entry burdens will be shared.

In the future, Collinson says we may see legislation that requires importers to post bonds to cover potential problems after goods reach U.S. shores.

This article appeared in September 2007. (CM)

John Manzella
About The Author John Manzella [Full Bio]
John Manzella, founder of the Manzella Report, is a world-recognized speaker, author of several books, and an international columnist on global business, trade policy, labor, and the latest economic trends. His valuable insight, analysis and strategic direction have been vital to many of the world's largest corporations, associations and universities preparing for the business, economic and political challenges ahead.

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