“Sometimes it’s unbearable,” said Denise Williams, a supervisor in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Import Operations here in Southern California.
The warehouse is one of several in the Los Angeles district where Williams and FDA investigators spend their days sorting and inspecting thousands upon thousands of boxes that fill an area larger than four football fields.
There’s Cambodian rice by the ton, tapioca pearls from the Philippines and tea biscuits and bean curd from China.
The shipments were flagged for inspection as they came in through one of the 24 ports of entry in and around Los Angeles More than a half a million food shipments came through the district last year alone, making it one of the busiest in the U.S. About 3,500 of them were refused entry because the food was contaminated with filth, pesticides, drug residues or traces of salmonella. Some of it contained unsafe color additives or was mislabeled. And some was poisonous.
“If it comes in here and it’s bad,” Williams said, “we’re gonna get ‘em.”
Except when they don’t.
Myriad critics, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office, say the FDA is simply not up to the task of ensuring the safety of food imports, which are entering this country in ever-growing numbers. The FDA expects 24 million shipments of FDA-regulated goods to pass through the nation’s ports of entry this year, up from 6 million a decade ago.
During that time, the number of FDA investigators stayed constant at about 1,350. The agency began adding investigators in 2009 and now has about 1,800 — still far short of the number required to keep up with the pace of imports.
In 2010, FDA inspectors physically examined 2.06 percent of all food-related imports. The agency expects only 1.59 percent of all food imports to be examined this year and even less — only 1.47 percent — next year, according to its Office of Regulatory Affairs.
This summer, the FDA gave News21 unusual access behind the scenes of its largest operating district to show the ways in which front-line operations attempt to keep unsafe food from reaching American supermarket shelves and dinner tables.
“The Nose” prepares to sniff his way down a mahi-mahi fillet.
Steve Angold works out of a narrow lab at the FDA’s new $40 million testing facility in Irvine, Calif. He is one of about 25 FDA specialists across the country who rely on their senses of sight, touch, taste and smell to detect decomposition or filth in food products.
“It’s either pass or fail,” Angold said. “Ocean grimy smells would be passing; even stale or fishy odors would be passing.”
But if the food smells like turnips or cabbage, it’s probably spoiled, he said.
“The worst ones are fecal,” Angold continued, the fish inches from his face. “Some people refer to it as baby diapers. I don’t have kids, so …”
Reaching the tail, Angold laid the fish on a sterilized countertop.
“There’s nothing wrong with this fish,” he announced. “It’s pretty good.”
Organoleptic testing is one of several methods the FDA uses to determine the safety of food products. Others include chemical and microbiological tests as well as tests to detect insects.
A few doors down from Angold, entomologist John Sedwick placed a sample of sugar cane under a microscope. He moved the petri dish slowly under the lens until he spotted black ants — some whole, some cut in half, all dead — among the particles of sugar.
The FDA is tolerant of ants and other field insects that get mixed in with foods prior to harvesting because they pose little threat to human health. If investigators are uncertain, they can consult the “Food Defect Action Levels,” a manual that sets out exactly how many insect parts, larvae or animal hairs are acceptable.
“Other things like blowfly maggots, cockroaches, they carry a whole host of foodborne pathogens,” such as bacteria and viruses as well parasites, Sedwick said, “so there’s a very low tolerance for those kinds of insects.”
Entomologists also look for “anything that a human would find repulsive or aesthetically displeasing,” he said.
“I’ve had samples where I’ve found rat hair, shrew hair, bat hair … beetles, maggots … all in one sample,” he said.
Circumventing the System
At a warehouse in East Los Angeles, FDA investigators Arnold Shih and Dennis Hoang watched as 50 boxes of preserved bean curd from China were emptied into a grinding machine.
The monstrously loud apparatus worked its way through 1,800 glass bottles, grinding the glass and spitting out a stream of chunky yellow ooze. This ooze is then collected, treated and disposed of in the sewer system.
Investigators had decided the bottles of bean curds were improperly heat-sealed and thus were susceptible to harmful bacteria like botulism, which can be fatal.
That’s not always how it happens.
In order to avoid holding up commerce, food shipments often are allowed to proceed directly from a port to the importer. The FDA may decide to physically inspect a shipment only after it has been moved.
But once food products are in the hands of the importer, there are more opportunities for fraud. To thwart investigators, importers may re-label a shipment or swap out the original product for something more likely to pass FDA inspection, Williams said.
Importers also have been known to circumvent orders to destroy or return shipments to their home countries, she said. For example, they might place contaminated food on top of a shipment and load the bottom with rocks or debris, hoping that federal inspectors — who must be present during export or destruction — will check only the boxes on top.
Sometimes, importers mislabel products they know will get scrutiny.
“And they do get clever,” Williams said.
The counterfeit Nike shoes piled onto one table were labeled rice sticks, Williams said. These will be passed to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which might slap the importer with a fine.
FDA investigators admit they can’t catch every risky import. There’s just too much to catch.
Food imports to the U.S. have been increasing steadily for nearly a decade, and there are no signs that they will slow any time soon.
In 2002, the Los Angeles district handled about 930,000 shipments subject to FDA oversight. That rose to almost 1.4 million shipments in 2010, and the agency expects the number to hit 1.5 million this year.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Dan Solis, the FDA’s director of import operations for the L.A. district. “For example, in the Port of L.A., over 40 percent of shipments coming through are food … so yes, the volume is a continual challenge for import operations nationally.”
The FDA outlined some of the ways it is trying to keep up in a special report issued in July 2011 titled “Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality.” In the report the agency said it has opened offices in several large food-exporting countries, including China, India and Costa Rica, and has boosted the number of inspections in other countries in an attempt to stop problems at the source.
Still, the report paints a gloomy picture of the FDA’s ability to cope. “Despite … recent improvements, FDA does not — nor will it — have the resources to adequately keep pace with the pressures of globalization,” the report states.
Carl Nielsen, former director of the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs Division of Import Operations and Policy, said the biggest problem the FDA faces is an antiquated structure that focuses mostly on domestic food.
The FDA has about 1,800 investigators who oversee more than 44,000 U.S. food manufacturers and more than 100,000 additional registered food facilities, such as warehouses and grain elevators.
At the same time, the agency is responsible for nearly 200,000 foreign food facilities that have registered with the FDA in order to import the millions of food shipments that arrive in the U.S. each year.
With numbers like that, “Where would you want the people?” Nielsen said. “Would you want some people at the border? Well, there’s very few.”
FDA Public Affairs Officer Patricia El-Hinnawy said the number of investigators assigned to examine imported food shipments nationally is 277 full-time equivalents. That’s just five more than in 2009. These employees do field exams, sample collections and conduct security reviews, among other things, at ports of entry around the country.
Nielsen said the FDA’s food import operations are “still a bastard child” within the agency. Until the FDA sets up a separate, well-financed division devoted to food imports, inspections are “not going to happen effectively for a very, very long time,” he said.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed earlier this year, gives the FDA a new mandate to make certain food is safe for U.S. consumers. Among the requirements are stricter rules for imported foods and more inspections.
The law places more responsibility for food safety on foreign manufacturers. And it calls for the FDA to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within the next year and double those inspections every year for the next five years. That would mean 19,200 foreign inspections in year six.
The FDA inspected 354 foreign food establishments in 2010 and estimates it will inspect 994 in 2011.
In its July report, the FDA said the 2011 goal might be attainable but not the rest.
“It would be impossible for FDA to complete 19,200 foreign food inspections in year six without a substantial increase in resources or a complete overhaul in the way it operates,” the report said.
More resources also are needed for intelligence-gathering and technological improvements, such as a global data-information sharing system, the FDA report said.
Technology, Nielsen said, has long been the biggest weak spot in the FDA’s ability to monitor food imports. In 2000, FDA officials came up with a list of 10 things they needed to better monitor imports, and seven of them had to do with technology, Nielsen said.
“And I promise you, they’re still not done,” he said.
Additional resources are unlikely as Congress cuts spending in an effort to reduce the nation’s debt. A measure in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut $285 million from the agency’s 2012 budget, with $35 million coming from food safety, according to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill.
Los Angeles District Director Alonza Cruse said the FDA has made major improvements over the past decade, including better communication and collaboration with other agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and a new computer system that is helping pinpoint which of the millions of shipments each year should be inspected.
That system, called PREDICT, or Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting, is now used at 70 percent of U.S. import operations at land, sea and air ports. It analyzes information such as a manufacturer’s history with the agency, lab test results and even current weather patterns to direct investigators toward the riskiest commodities and shipments.
But while PREDICT is a powerful tool, the safety of food imports still lies largely in the hands of investigators like Denise Williams and scientists like Steve Angold.
Until someone invents a robot that can distinguish safe food from unsafe food, Cruse said, it’s “a person who has to ultimately decide, yea or nay.”
There are “tools that hopefully help us to say yea or nay faster,” she said. “But it all comes down to a person.”