- 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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- "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.