NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 21, 2006

A surge in foreign imports of products such as herbal medicines and candy has made it increasingly challenging for U.S. food, health and customs officials to check the safety of all products entering the country, say observers.

Almost all shipments from abroad undergo automated tests in which computers scan cargo invoices for products with possible safety risks. However:

  • Some 13.7 million imported products subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) entered the United States in fiscal 2005, compared with 7.9 million three years earlier, the agency said.
  • Only about 75,000 shipments are tested and sampled annually, according to FDA spokesperson Michael Herndon.

A number of undocumented products also enter the United States daily in trucks, luggage, mail or car trunks, according to observers.

For example:

  • New York City health officials last year found herbal medicine on sale at a store in Queens, an area with many immigrants, that contained 2,190 times the amount of mercury considered safe by the Institute of Medicine.
  • In addition, California health officials have struggled for years with the sale of Mexican candies that are contaminated with lead.

Leticia Ayala of the Environmental Health Coalition, says, "What we found out was that the FDA didn't have the capacity to deal with this huge issue. Most of the things that come across the border aren't being tested. So we can't rely on the federal government to protect us at the border."

Source: David B. Caruso, "Unsafe imports evading health, customs agencies," Associated Press/Newark Star-Ledger, March 20, 2006.

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