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American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

March 2008

Vol. 4, No. 2

Business Law


Food Safety Issues With Imported Food

More than half of the food products eaten in the United States come from other countries. In view of the well-publicized problems with our food during the past few years, whether it was produced locally or outside the country, it is not an unnecessary question to ask how well these products are watched, investigated, and regulated. A simple answer is that all food products coming from foreign countries must meet the same requirements as American products.

Ever since 1906 and the book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which described the horrible conditions in the Chicago slaughterhouses, at least processed food has been regulated. With the adoption of the Bioterrorism Act in 2003, even greater attention is being paid to the safety of our food. All foreign food production plants wishing to export to the United States must be registered with the United States. There must be an electronic notice five days in advance when food products will be imported into the United States. This is in addition to the country going through a rather rigorous evaluation to ensure to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), within the Department of Agriculture (USDA), that the method of surveillance of food production in another country is equivalent to ours and that monitoring of food production is continuous.

The USDA has several internal agencies that supervise the safety of imported food products, including the FSIS, which has responsibility for meat, fowl, and certain egg products. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) checks the arrival of food products to the United States to determine if the food products come from a country allowing only healthy and sanitary products to be sent to the United States. If APHIS thinks that there may be a threat to our animal and plant agriculture, it requires a reinspection by the FSIS.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring that other food products, as well as drugs and cosmetics, are made under sanitary conditions and not mislabelled.

All of these agencies work with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security, to coordinate the monitoring of food brought into the United States.

Food processors must follow Good Manufacturing Practices (21 CFR 110), which require producers to develop and follow a plan called the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (21 CFR 123.6).

Analysis of food safety spills over from what may be strictly a scientific analysis to something more judgmental or political. Besides disagreements over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), the United States and the European Union also have disagreements over what qualifies a product to be deemed safe and made under sanitary conditions. The United States considers the presence of insect parts, etc., as being a sign of an unsanitary condition in production; the EU looks at these foreign materials as being an issue of quality, and their presence is excluded in the evaluation of the sanitary condition of the plant. Apel, Tolerance of Food Contamination in Europe, Agricultural Law Update, Vo. 24, No. 2, Feb., 2007.

The principal laws governing the product and sale of food are: Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA), Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA), Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), Food Allergen Labeling Act (FALCPA), Public Health Service Act (PHSA).

The laws and procedures governing the importation of food can be found much more fully at the following web sites:

Lynne R. Ostfeld is a solo practitioner in Chicago with an associated office in France. Her general practice includes business law, civil litigation, and probate and estate planning. Fluent in French, she is legal advisor to the French Consulate in Chicago. The progeny of thrifty Midwest farmers, she has expertise in international and domestic agribusiness and is adjunct professor of international agribusiness law at The John Marshall Law School.

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