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Food Sentry is continuing its analysis of international food safety violations.  Analyzing data from nearly 1,000 reported food safety violations from 73 countries over the past 15 months, our ­initial report showed that the top five countries that were found during laboratory testing to have the most food safety violations were China, the United States, India, Japan and Vietnam.

This report focuses on India. Our reports on China and the United States uncovered some surprising data, as does our analysis here of reported Indian food safety violations.

As background, we collected data from multiple food testing laboratories around the world.  Most countries test a percentage of the foods that are being imported.  A violation occurs when some kind of contaminant is detected in a food in excess of the levels allowed by the inspecting country.

Testing regimes vary from country to country. Some countries test as much as 30 percent of the food they import.  If there is a particular problem that comes to light, that number can increase to 50 percent for certain categories of foods, or foods from countries for which there is particular concern.  In comparison, the United States inspects less than 2 percent of food being imported and actually does laboratory testing on less than 1 percent.

When we looked at contaminants discovered in Indian food exports, we found pesticides to be the number one problem, accounting for 47 percent of all reported food safety violations for that country (a more detailed version of the above infographic is here). Twenty-five different pesticides turned up in excess in laboratory testing.  Vegetables, nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices were most likely to be contaminated with excessive residues.  We found several cases where a single product was contaminated with multiple pesticide residues, including one instance in which a single batch of curry leaves had residues from eight different pesticides (acephate, carbendazim, diafenthiuron, ethion, hexaconazole, methamidophos, monocrotophos and profenofos).

The next most common type of contaminants reported in Indian food exports were chemicals of various sorts.  Lab testing discovered calcium carbide, sulfur dioxide, Sudan IV dye, anthraquinone and ethoxyquin.  In our analysis, this data set is somewhat skewed by the fact that certain countries have issued a no-notice directive to India that they will no longer accept shrimp with levels of ethoxyquin in excess of 0.01 parts per million (ppm).  This resulted in a plethora of violations for Indian shrimp, which was previously held to a standard of 1 ppm for ethoxyquin.  The countries involved are currently in negotiation to resolve this issue.  Ethoxyquin is an anti-oxidant used in fish feed to keep it from going rancid. There is little scientific evidence one way or the other at this point about the risks of ethoxyquin to human health.

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The third food safety violation of concern in Indian exports was mycotoxins, primarily in nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. These are toxins produced by fungi, most often by species of Aspergillus mold. Testing found instances of excessive aflatoxins B1 and B2 as well as ochratoxin. Mycotoxins can be quite toxic to humans; they are carcinogenic and have a good potential for causing both acute and chronic disease.

In the remaining categories we investigated (toxic metals, antibiotics, and pathogens) we found relatively few violations.  The toxic metal cadmium was found in excess in octopus and mud crabs; pathogens were limited to Salmonella in some vegetables, nuts, seeds and herbs and spices; residues from the antibiotics malachite green (a dye sometimes used for its anti-fungal properties) and AOZ (3-amino-2-oxazolidinone, a metabolite of furazolidone, a broad-spectrum antibacterial), were found in a very small sample of seafood and in rapeseed meal.

In the groups of foods we encountered in this analysis, those most likely to come to the United States are herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, and shellfish.  India is a primary supplier of herbs and spices (worth $209 million in 2012), nuts and seeds ($549 million) and shellfish ($583 million). As you can see, you are quite likely to encounter these products in your shopping routine.

The question to be asked is, what is the likelihood of an uninspected shipment being in violation of U.S. food safety regulations? Note that this includes not only contaminated food, but also food for which the paperwork is incorrect and food which is not labeled correctly or misbranded. The data to answer this question with any precision are hard to come by, but we can estimate based on some statements by FDA.

To add a little bit more perspective, the United States imported about 54.5 million tons of food in 2012, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.  That translated to about 25 million individual shipments of food from foreign importers.  The Office of Regulatory Affairs at the FDA estimated that they inspected less than 1.5 percent of those shipments.

In 2011, Denise Williams, a supervisor in FDA’s import operations in southern California, indicated that out of 10 million food-related shipments, 16,000 were rejected by the FDA. If the FDA is inspecting only 1.5 percent of shipments (150,000 in this case) and it rejected 16,000, then we can figure a violation rate of about 11 percent. Eleven percent of the remaining uninspected shipments would be around 1.1 million shipments that could be expected to have some sort of food safety violation.

A “shipment” can be anything from a box to a crate to a shipboard container, so volume is difficult to assess.  Nonetheless, more than a million violative shipments making their way into U.S. markets are surely cause for concern.  With India making up such a large percentage of the imports in the categories identified above, you can see that your likelihood of encountering them is higher than you might like.

In addition to formal shipments, there are foods that come to the United States that are beyond the reach of the FDA. They arrive in the mail in smaller amounts, or are brought in illegally (“cheese mules” are an interesting example).  As we mentioned in a previous article, Spices – More Than a Matter of Taste, spices are very likely to be in this category.  Be wary of internet purchases and exercise caution when buying spices that have been repackaged in unbranded, unlabeled containers.

Our analysis of what foreign labs find when they test food from many of the same countries that export to the United States leads us to conclude there is an extremely good chance of unsafe food reaching your table at some point. We recommend you buy from reputable sources that you are familiar with.  Additionally, keep up with food recalls and other food safety alerts. You can find all of them, including recalls for the United States and Canada, posted within hours of release at www.foodsentry.org.