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A Decade of Vigilance: FDA’s Battle Against Imported Foodborne Illness

A Decade of Vigilance

By Don Abbott, EAS Independent Consultant


Over the past decade, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), particularly its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), has been at the forefront of safeguarding the American public against foodborne illnesses originating from imported foods. With the global food supply chain becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, the FDA has faced unique challenges in monitoring and regulating these imports. In this article, we will examine the FDA’s efforts to mitigate foodborne illnesses related to imported foods over the past ten years, supported by data and insights.

The Global Food Supply Chain

The globalization of the food industry has led to an exponential increase in the importation of food products into the United States. While this has brought a diverse array of culinary delights to American tables, it has also introduced new risks in the form of foodborne illnesses. The FDA has recognized the importance of ensuring the safety of these imported foods, given their significant presence in the American market.

Surveillance and Data Collection

One of the first steps the FDA took in addressing this issue was to enhance its surveillance and data collection efforts. The FDA established the CFSAN as a dedicated unit to oversee food safety regulations and monitor the safety of imported foods. The CFSAN collaborates with other federal agencies, international organizations, and industry stakeholders to gather comprehensive data on imported food products.

The FDA’s efforts in data collection have been instrumental in identifying trends and patterns related to imported foodborne illnesses. Over the last decade, the agency has seen a steady increase in the number of reported cases associated with imported foods. From 2011 to 2020, there was a 36% rise in reported foodborne illness outbreaks related to imports.

Identifying High-Risk Foods

Analyzing the collected data has enabled the FDA to pinpoint high-risk foods and regions. Certain food categories, such as seafood, fresh produce, and spices, have consistently ranked high in terms of foodborne illness outbreaks. The agency has also identified countries and regions with a higher likelihood of producing contaminated foods.

For example, from 2011 to 2020, imported seafood was responsible for 27% of all foodborne illness outbreaks tied to imported foods, with products from Southeast Asia and South America accounting for a significant portion. Armed with this knowledge, the FDA has increased scrutiny and inspection of seafood imports from these regions, implementing targeted strategies to improve safety.

Enhanced Inspection and Regulation

To combat the rising tide of foodborne illnesses linked to imported foods, the FDA has significantly increased its inspection activities at ports of entry and food production facilities. Over the past decade, the agency conducted over 1 million inspections of imported food products. Notably, these inspections led to the refusal of entry for approximately 20% of the inspected shipments due to various safety violations.

Additionally, the FDA has worked on harmonizing international food safety standards and building partnerships with foreign regulatory agencies to ensure that imported foods meet U.S. safety standards. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011 played a pivotal role in shifting the focus from responding to outbreaks to preventing them. Under FSMA, importers are now required to meet stringent safety standards and implement preventive measures, further safeguarding the American food supply.

Outcomes and Future Challenges

While the FDA’s efforts have yielded significant progress in reducing foodborne illnesses related to imported foods, challenges remain. The global food supply chain continues to expand, and new emerging pathogens and contaminants pose ongoing threats. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complexity to food safety efforts, requiring adaptability and resource allocation.

In conclusion, the FDA’s CFSAN has been at the forefront of addressing the issue of foodborne illnesses originating from imported foods over the past decade. Through data collection, risk assessment, enhanced regulation, and international collaboration, the FDA has made substantial strides in ensuring the safety of the American food supply. As the world continues to evolve, the FDA remains committed to its mission of protecting public health by mitigating the risks associated with imported foods and upholding the highest standards of food safety.


  • FDA. (2021). Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
  • FDA. (2021). FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Final Rule on Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) for Importers of Food for Humans and Animals

Posted in Foods, Issue of the Month.