Tainted Products in US
Food Supply Come
From Variety of Sources
By Darlene Superville
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A shipment of imported frozen fish rejected by government inspectors in 1996 was found, after closer examination, to be from a batch that officials had turned away two years earlier because it was tainted by salmonella, botulism and filth.
But rather than destroy the shipment, the company kept the fish and tried to import it again in what a Senate panel learned Thursday is one of several ways that crooked importers get tainted food into the country and onto the dinner plates of unsuspecting Americans.
"That fish could have killed someone," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs' permanent subcommittee on investigations.
Collins also criticized the punishment imposed on the president of the company -- a year's probation and 50 hours of community service.
"Do you think that's really a deterrent?" she asked Richard Hoglund, a deputy assistant commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service. "The penalties are woefully inadequate to deter this kind of fraud that jeopardizes the health and safety of American citizens."
Penalties are just one problem, said Lawrence Dyckman, director of food and agriculture issues for the General Accounting Office, the investigative and auditing branch of Congress. The hearing was the third in a series on the safety of the nation's food supply.
Dyckman said procedures used by the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the bulk of the nation's food imports, "provide little assurance" that imports are inspected or that those that violate U.S. safety standards are destroyed or sent out of the country.
Problems arise, Dyckman said, because the FDA lets importers keep their shipments throughout the process, enabling some companies to substitute approved goods for rejected products or those awaiting inspection. In some instances, importers ordered to send tainted food out of the United States substitute garbage in those shipments instead, and distribute the unapproved food in America.
By contrast, the Department of Agriculture, which handles meat, poultry and some egg products, holds shipments in government-approved inspection facilities until they are released or denied entry. The department also puts an identifying stamp on rejected shipments.
Dyckman also said Customs and the FDA often do not coordinate their efforts.
A former customs broker, who testified anonymously, said unscrupulous importers look for ports with lax procedures and overworked inspectors. The broker was in the business for nearly 20 years before his recent conviction in an ongoing federal investigation. He is awaiting sentencing.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., defended the FDA, saying the agency has a "seemingly impossible task" in the face of increasing imports and declining staff.
Imported food shipments more than doubled in the past six years, the GAO said. The investigative agency has previously reported that the FDA inspected less than 2 percent of the 2.7 million shipments of fruit, vegetables, seafood and other goods under its watch last year.
Durbin said lawmakers must consider spending more money or imposing fees on importers if they are serious about closing loopholes in the system.
Collins said she supports increasing the food safety budget but doesn't want to put more money into a broken system.
"I think what GAO is saying is as long as those flaws exist in the system ... we can add all the inspectors in the world and we're still going to have a problem," she said.