Featured Image for The United States and Global Food Safety Violations - A Surprising Look

Food Sentry continues to analyze the scope and types of international food safety violations.  Our initial report described our overall findings after examining nearly 1,000 reported food violation incidents in 73 countries.  We collected and analyzed lab testing results from domestic and foreign sources around the globe to get a better picture of which countries have what kinds of problems.  The top five countries with reported violations were China, the United States, India, Vietnam and Japan. Our last report took a closer look at China, the country with more reported violations than any other.

This report closely examines U.S. food safety violations reported in the last 15 months, and the results are a little surprising.  It’s often said that the United States has the safest food in the world.  While this may or may not be true, it is true that there are some 48 million estimated cases of food poisoning in a given year, with 140,000 or so of us being hospitalized and more than 3,000 deaths attributed to food poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have already issued more than 100 food recalls so far this year.

Just from United States domestic data and reporting, it’s clear that there are measurable and broad risks associated with our food.  The dollar value of food exported from the United States is around $118 billion, so there is a lot of it out there; many of the export producers sell their foods here at home, too.  Let’s take a closer look at what was found when foods from the United States were tested (see the expanded version of the above infographic here).

When we examined contaminants, we found that pathogens were by far the number one problem reported with U.S. foods, accounting for 45 percent of all reported violations.  The pathogens discovered were Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Escherichia coli and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. In the eight categories of foods we examined (vegetables, fruits, seafood, meat, dairy, nuts/seeds, herbs/spices and grains) pathogen contamination was found in all of them, with the exception of grains.  The most common pathogen was Listeria monocytogenes, accounting for 62 percent of all pathogens discovered in testing. It was mostly found in vegetables, fruits and dairy.

Mycotoxins (toxins produced by various fungi, most often by species within the Aspergillus genus of mold) were the next most commonly reported food safety violation.  The majority of these violations were found in corn, all samples of which were contaminated with aflatoxin B1. Mycotoxins are of particular concern because of their potential for causing both acute and chronic disease in humans.  They can be potently carcinogenic and have a range of toxicity that can include immunosuppression and kidney damage. It is unusual for such high levels of mycotoxins to be found in U.S. products, but mycotoxin contamination has been increasing.  There is current speculation that this may be indirectly related to global warming.

Toxic metals were present in 15 percent of samples evaluated, almost all in seafood.  Cadmium was the only toxic metal identified and it was found in oysters, lobster and various types of crabs.  The United States FDA does not routinely test for toxic metals but foreign countries commonly do, setting very low limits for allowable toxic metal content.

Cadmium can become highly concentrated in certain crustaceans (e.g., brown crabs) that are considered delicacies in some countries. The National Institutes of Health identifies cadmium as a major toxicant. Cadmium occurs naturally at low levels in soil, so it will find its way into produce. In the normal course of events, the highest levels of cadmium are typically found in leafy vegetables, potatoes, grains and peanuts.  Seafood is commonly contaminated with toxic metals, including cadmium, usually as a result of high concentrations of the substance in the water caused by manufacturing activities.

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Cadmium is excreted from the body very slowly, with a half-life of more than 26 years.  Given cadmium’s toxicity and persistence in the human body, high concentration of the toxic metal in any food source is cause for concern. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, normal background exposure to cadmium from diet can yield kidney concentrations of nearly one-quarter of the critical level.

Pesticides were detected in lab testing at violative levels, primarily on fruits and vegetables. In contrast to the Chinese data we reviewed, where 32 different pesticides were identified, tested U.S. products showed only 11.  Only three products showed multiple pesticide residues (blueberries, carrots and peaches).

In comparing the 32 unique pesticides identified in Chinese products with the 11 identified in U.S. products, we noted only two pesticides in common, fipronil and carbendazim.  We are not certain what the significance of this difference is and are investigating further.

Meat products exported by the U.S. showed a range of contamination, although the number of meat products that produced violative results was small.  Lab testing detected the presence of the drug ractopamine (banned in the EU, Russia, China and Taiwan), the antibiotic chloramphenicol and contamination with E. coli in various samples.

Excessive use of preservative chemicals was detected in fruit, with laboratory testing identifying sulfur dioxide, various sulfites, benzoic acid and sorbic acid.

Many of these incidents involved U.S. exports, and consumers should view the performance of these products with some concern.  The same foods are consumed in the United States. The case of seafood deserves special attention, we believe.  Seafood consumption in the U.S. is on the rise, and while an increasing amount of farmed fish is imported from foreign sources, much of the oyster, crab and lobster we eat is harvested in the U.S.  All of these products showed significant levels of cadmium contamination when tested by foreign laboratories, with oysters also showing contamination with the pathogen Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

The frequent presence of these contaminants is unnecessary.  Cadmium is ubiquitous in the environment at low levels. V. parahaemolyticus is also common in the environment, especially in warmer waters.  In both cases, however, methods to detect their presence exist and are easily accessible.  There are many ways in which V. parahaemolyticus can be destroyed by processors before shellfish get to market. More diligence by producers is clearly in order.

We recommend that in the case of shellfish, consumers who are concerned about toxic metal levels should reduce their consumption of these types of products.  Thoroughly cooking shellfish will kill most bacteria and prevent infection. As always, we recommend getting more informed about the food you routinely eat. This will help you make better decisions about what’s on your table and what’s not.