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Congressional Research Service, "Food and Agricultural Imports from China," 2007

Geoffrey S. Becker prepared this Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. As its name suggests, CRS serves the U.S. Congress. Its reports are prepared for members and committees of Congress. They are not distributed directly to the public. CRS policy is to produce reports that are timely, objective, and non-partisan.
July 17, 2007


U.S. food and agricultural imports have increased significantly in recent years, causing some in Congress to question whether the U.S. food safety system can keep pace. A series of recent incidents have raised safety concerns about the many foods, medicines, and other products from China in particular. For example, in early 2007, evidence began to emerge that adulterated pet food ingredients from China had caused the deaths of an unknown number of dogs and cats. In late June 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it was detaining all imports of farm-raised seafood from China (specifically, shrimp, catfish, basa, dace, and eel) until the shippers of these products could confirm they are free of unapproved drug residues.

U.S. imports of all Chinese food, agricultural, and seafood products have increased from nearly 0.411 million metric tons (MMT) in 1996 to 1.833 MMT in 2006, a 346% rise. The increase by value was 375%, from $880 million in 1996 to $4.2 billion in 2006. China was the sixth leading foreign supplier of agricultural products to the United States and the second leading seafood supplier in 2006. When seafood values are combined with food and agricultural products, China was the third leading foreign supplier, after Canada and Mexico.

Two federal agencies — FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) — are primarily responsible for the government’s food regulatory system, although a number of other federal, state, and local agencies also have important roles. For imports, FSIS (which has oversight over most meat and poultry) relies on a very different regulatory system than FDA (which has oversight over other foods). Although all imported food products must meet the same safety standards as domestically produced foods, international trade rules permit a foreign country to apply its own, differing, regulatory authorities and institutional systems in meeting such standards, under an internationally recognized concept known as “equivalence.”

Despite recent statements by China that it is moving aggressively to improve its food safety system and close unsafe plants, some Members of Congress have expressed sharp criticism of both China’s food safety record and U.S. efforts to insure the safety of imports. Congressional committees have held, or are planning, hearings on food safety concerns generally and on the China situation particularly. On May 2, 2007, Senator Durbin won unanimous approval of an amendment to the Senate-passed FDA Revitalization Act (S. 1082) that would require domestic and foreign facilities to notify FDA of food safety problems, and would require FDA to establish a central registry for collecting information and notifying the public about adulterated foods, and for notifying the public about adulterated human or animal foods. The amendment includes elements of his proposed Human and Pet Food Safety Act of 2007 (S. 1274), introduced as H.R. 2108 by Representative DeLauro. Separate bills (S. 1776 and H.R. 2997) would, among other things, impose new user
fees on food imports to help cover the cost of their screening. More comprehensive bills (H.R. 1148/S. 654) would combine current federal food safety oversight under a new food safety administration. 

The full report can be found here.

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