It's morning on the docks of Baltimore, and FDA inspectors Dean Cook and Lorraine Harvey, a list of products to be sampled in hand, set to work checking a truckload of burlap sacks of psyllium seed husks from India. The psyllium seed husks are used in making laxatives.
Using a special funnel-shaped tool, Cook and Harvey siphon a pound of seed from six different sacks, then re-seal the bags. The seed will be analyzed back in FDA's laboratory to check for insects and bird excreta, problems that have plagued psyllium seed husks from India.
Next they open a shipment of stoneware plates and cups from India and remove eight sets of dinnerware. These will be analyzed to make sure the level of lead does not exceed that allowed.
Next they slit open a carton of German Christmas cakes. A quick check for excessive food coloring and proper labeling reveals no problems, and the shipment is allowed to be distributed.
"Some countries we almost never have problems with," says Cook. "But others, such as India, Thailand, China, Korea, and many countries in Africa, require constant vigilance."
Just before Cook and Harvey leave the docks, a U.S. Customs Service official alerts them to a shipment of imported noodles labeled only in Chinese. They open the packages, check the items, and make a note that they should be detained for improper labeling.
"The requirement that all products be labeled in English is a problem for some of the smaller, ethnic shippers, such as those from the Far East," explains Cook. "Perhaps they figure only people who read and speak the [foreign] language are interested in buying the product anyway."
Cook and Harvey are just two of 200 to 300 FDA inspectors, laboratory analysts, and compliance officers at work daily across the country insuring that food and drugs imported into this country are safe. in a crisis, such as the Chilean grape scare in 1989, up to 800 FDA field staff may be called into action. International Palate
During any given week, Americans may consume coffee from Colombia, fruit from Mexico, shrimp from India, and egg noodles from Korea. They may buy perfume from France, vitamin supplements from Denmark, microwave ovens from Japan, x-ray machines from Germany, cosmetics from Taiwan, and drugs from Hong Kong.
With the exception of beef and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, and products that emit radiation are subject to examination by FDA when they arrive in the United States.
By law, such products must meet the same standards required for domestic goods. Imported foods must be pure, wholesome, safe to eat, and produced under sanitary conditions; drugs and devices must be safe and effective; cosmetics must be safe and made from approved ingredients; and all labeling and packaging must be informative and truthful.
However, imports do not always meet these standards. It is not unusual, for example, for rice or grain from tropical or subtropical countries to arrive infested with live insects. And it is not unusual for processed food products-such as, say, taco shells from Mexico or imitation crab legs from China-to arrive contaminated with insect, rodent or bird filth. Phony drugs and other quack" products are a common problem. And shipments of ethnic foods frequently have to be detained because the labels aren't in English.
Sometimes it's a case of outright smuggling, as in a recent conspiracy to sneak illegal bulk veterinary drugs into the country, first by boat through the Port of New York, then through the Port of New Orleans, and finally by truck across the U.S.-Canadian border (see "Sentence Upheld for Animal Drug Smuggler" in the Investigators' Reports section of the January-February 1991 FDA Consumer).
The number of imports has jumped in the past 20 years. In 1971, FDA reviewed approximately …