Covid-19’s Effect on Foreign Food Safety Inspections

The Lempert Report
April 14, 2020

One story that hasn’t made the headlines is that the Food & Drug Administration halted overseas food inspections as a result of the travel restrictions due to the pandemic.

As the food industry – from farm to fork – grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic as hopefully by now you know, we launched a Facebook LIVE webcast with our partner Winsight Grocery Business – Grocery Covid-19 – which airs live every Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30 pm eastern for up to date news on Covid-19. On our Lempert Report videos we will occasionally address Covid-19 stories, but will continue our focus on marketing analysis, issues and trends for the food industry. For Covid-19 news I hope you will tune in to our Facebook Live webcasts.

The FDA is calling it a “postponement of inspections” but in reality the food processing facilities across the globe, with the exception of parts of Asia and the EU are continuing to produce foods that may well make its way to the US. Two issues are important to note. The first is that the process is that FDA selects facilities based on risk and that once a high-risk facility is selected it had to be inspected and then every three years after that. The second is that there are approximately 110,000 foreign food facilities that are registered with the FDA which represents about 30 percent of vegetables, 55 percent of fruit and 94 percent of seafood that is imported to our shores. It is estimated that the FDA only inspects about 1,600 of them each year.

Also it’s important to note that about 80 percent of ingredients that are used in generic medicines are imported, mostly from China and India.

If there is any consolation it should be noted that food inspections at land and sea ports of entry into the United States will continue as part of the government’s normal domestic operations.

“The FDA based this decision on a number of factors, including State Department Level 4 travel advisories in which travel is prohibited for U.S. government employees,” according to the FDA’s posted notice.

However, as we can see in every supermarket these days our public health officials have said that the virus can survive on hard surfaces such as plastic, stainless steal, and other metals that come into contact with food; which is why our grocery stores have sprung into action and upgraded – significantly – their regular sanitation procedures.

The FDA announcement this week said officials believe the agency will be able to “maintain oversight over international manufacturers and imported products using alternative tools and methods.”

“These include denying entry of unsafe products into the U.S., physical examinations and/or product sampling at our borders, reviewing a firm’s previous compliance history, using information sharing from foreign governments as part of mutual recognition and confidentiality agreements.”

Food inspections are more important today than ever, and while we respect the travel restrictions, we must demand increased inspections on imported foods before they enter our food chain especially those from countries that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.