"’I refuse to buy shrimp in the U.S. We’ve inspected plants in Vietnam. Those plants are state-of-the-art. They’re certainly better than shrimp-handling in the US."
So says Roger Berkowitz, CEO of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, who insists Asian shrimp is gaining in the U.S., not because it’s cheaper but because it’s safer.
That food safety nugget was delivered in an otherwise mundane series of articles published this week by the Christian Science Monitor.
There’s also some sharp words for the two primary U.S. inspection agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is inspection-focused. US law requires it to inspect every carcass of meat and poultry that it’s responsible for, even though numerous scientific reports have questioned the effectiveness of those rapid conveyor-belt inspections.
"There is an awful lot of money being spent on guys standing around watching the chickens fly by," says Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a former official at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. "It’s hard to tell what you are getting for your money."
The USDA’s costly carcass-by-carcass inspection soaks up about 60 percent of US food-safety funding, even though it covers only about 20 percent of the food Americans eat (mostly meat). That leaves the FDA with only around 40 percent of the funding, even though it’s responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the food supply. With less funding, it’s difficult for the FDA to inspect food facilities on a regular basis.
"In my mind, [the FDA] doesn’t have an inspection system," says Scott Hurd, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University and former deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food safety at the USDA. "It has a ‘wander around and hope you bump into something’ " approach.
Numerous outbreaks linked to Mexican produce earlier this decade spurred the Mexican industry to clean up its image by developing various voluntary standards. For example, México Calidad Suprema is a generic brand that growers and packers commit to operate by high food-safety standards.
"Nobody ensures that" quality, says Frank Pope, who exports carrots produced in Queretaro, in central Mexico, to the US. "The market takes care of it."
Such faith in the market and voluntary efforts by the Mexican growers and packers have won over some U.S. wholesalers. "They’re working very hard to counteract that" taint, says Peter John Condakes, whose New England produce wholesale and distributing company buys more than half of its Roma tomatoes from Mexican companies. "Truthfully, in a lot of cases, the packing sheds are as strict or more strict than in the United States."