Food Safety / Traceability

New Report: Imported Food Safety Matters More Than Ever

Today’s consumer has come to expect easy availability of their favorite foods on the shelves of the local grocery store. And, thanks to more efficient global transportation networks, consumers do enjoy year-round access to foods that were once strictly seasonal, particularly fresh produce.  

Unfortunately, as food imports have skyrocketed, foodborne illnesses have become more widespread as well. The total number of outbreaks remains small, but the number of incidents show a significant upward trend, especially since 2011. Therefore, the safety of imported food coming into the US is a legitimate concern.

Imported Food and Illness

In “Outbreaks of Disease Associated with Food Imported into the United States, 1996-2014,” four CDC researchers studied foodborne illnesses that were traced to imported food. Two members of the team came from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the other two were affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Imports Key Part of Food Supply

The researchers calculate that almost one-fifth (19 percent) of food consumed in the United States comes from other countries. Half of fresh fruit is imported, as is 20 percent of all fresh vegetables. The United States imports almost all (97 percent) of its shellfish and fish, so this is another major area of concern.

The report suggests that foodborne illnesses related to imports are most common in produce and fish. The researchers assert that “The proportion of food that is imported has increased steadily over the past 20 years because of changing consumer demand for a wider selection of food products and increasing demand for produce items year round.”

More Than 10,000 Illnesses

For the 19-year period from 1996 to 2014, researchers looked at investigations of 195 outbreaks in total. These incidents resulted in 10,685 illnesses, 1,017 hospitalizations and 19 fatalities. The researchers found that outbreaks were most commonly the result of Salmonella, Cyclospora or Scombroid toxin. All but one of the outbreaks caused by Scombroid toxin involved fish. Seventy-seven percent of the Salmonella outbreaks were produce-related. Salmonella outbreaks were most common in these categories, listed from highest number of incidents to the fewest:

  • Fruits

  • Seeded vegetables

  • Sprouts

  • Nuts and Seeds

  • Spices

  • Herbs

Incidents Involving Imported Food

During the period studied, a total of 31 states reported outbreaks. Outbreaks traced to imported food involved multiple states 43 times. The researchers concluded that, although the total number of imported food outbreaks is relatively small, the number of such incidents is increasing. The report suggests that outbreaks involving imported food averaged 3/yr from 1996-2000. By 2009-2014, the number had risen six-fold to an average of 18 per year. Food Safety News published a graph that illustrates this growing trend toward food-borne illnesses arising from imported food products.

Also, the proportion of outbreaks that involved imported food products increased from one-percent early in the period 1996-2014 to five percent later in the period.

The research team was able to identify the source of imported food outbreaks 91 percent of the time. Outbreaks associated with fish were mainly traced to Asia, the source of most U.S. fish imports. Food-borne illnesses associated with imported produce were largely traced to the Caribbean and Latin America, the primary sources of imported produce.

The report states that about half of all vegetable imports and a quarter of fruit/nut imports come from Mexico. Chile and Costa Rica are also major suppliers. Forty-one of the incidents studied involved food imported from Mexico, 17 incidents were traced to Indonesia and 11 to Canada. The team cautions that the data may understate outbreaks associated with imported food because of a historic tendency to under-report such incidents.

Benefits of FSMA Re: Imported Food Safety

The researchers believe that the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 will improve imported food safety due to some of its features:

  • Foreign Supplier Verification Program

  • Preventative Controls Rule for Human Food

  • Accreditation of third-party auditors

  • Produce Safety Rule

Collectively, these programs will require imported food to meet the same safety standards that domestic food must meet.

Imported Food Safety Recommendations

The researchers say that, given the increase in outbreaks related to imported foods, there is a “need to strengthen regional and global networks for outbreak detection and information sharing.” One tool that that can improve food recall response time is traceability.

Their report suggests that improving food safety is reliant on regulatory authority at the federal level, as well as embracing newer investigation methods. For example, in 2012, a Listeria outbreak was traced to imported Italian cheese. This incident illustrated the need to quickly trace contaminated foods to their place of origin. When outbreaks do occur, genome sequencing may help investigators to trace the sources of food-borne illnesses when imported foods are involved. The researchers recognize that, as the global economy gets more and more complicated, digital tools that help to illustrate complex supplier networks is of utmost importance.

The research team suggests that, in the future, resources might be better concentrated in the imported seafood and produce categories where most outbreaks originate. Enhanced supply chain reporting can better identify the country of origin when imported foods are involved.


The researchers review of foodborne illnesses between 1996-2014 suggests that the actual numbers of incidents related to imported foods were relatively low. Still, they documented over 1,000 hospitalizations and 19 deaths caused by tainted food imported from other countries. Plus, incidents related to imported food rose from one percent of all incidents to five percent during the period studied.

New analytical tools like genome sequencing should improve the ability to trace transmission networks when outbreaks related to imported foods occur. Researchers see the collective implementation of various FSMA protocols and programs as a key means for reversing this trend.

Interested in learning more? We've hosted a webinar with Matt Regusci of WQS Food Verification and TrainToComply to teach you exactly what to watch for and why it matters for your company.

  • The specific requirements that imported food must meet

  • What importers are responsible for when it comes to food safety plans

  • How much power the FDA has in stopping imports from suppliers it suspects of violations


Posted by Katy Jones on Mar 9, 2017 11:00:00 AM