U.S. consumers demand variety, quality, and convenience in the foods they consume. As Americans have become wealthier and more ethnically diverse, the American food basket reflects a growing share of tropical products, spices, and imported gourmet products.

– United States Department of Agriculture

Imported foods constitute a significant portion of the American diet. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that approximately 15 percent of all food on the market is foreign produced, processed, and packaged. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), approximately 50 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of fresh vegetables, and 80 percent of seafood is imported.

An increased emphasis on food safety—culminating in the passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA)—has resulted in enhanced scrutiny of both domestic and imported foodstuffs. This article examines the apparatuses overseeing the safety of U.S. food imports, and the means by which they do so.

Overview of Imports

The amount of food entering U.S. seaports is impressive. According to the USDA, American ports received approximately 123 billion pounds of imported food in 2013—about 390 pounds per person. Statistically, it is estimated that total food imports are increasing at a rate of 15 percent per year.

Various reasons exist that help explain the rise of food imports. First, American consumers are increasingly demanding a wider variety and selection of food products. Second, many of the foods that consumers prefer cannot be produced domestically due to climatic or seasonal variances. Third, some imported products are cheaper to import than to produce and sell in the U.S.

Analysts anticipate that the growing rate of U.S. food imports will continue into the foreseeable future. To meet this demand, the government and other entities must prepare to ensure the safety of imported foods. Given the massive amount of food reaching U.S. shores each day, this is a complex responsibility.

The FDA and Food Imports

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938

The U.S. Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) of 1938 granted the FDA the right to establish and execute inspection and safety protocols for imported foods. Statutes of the act elaborate on a number of fundamental food safety regulations. Among these are proper and accurate labeling, listing of ingredients, quality standards for dairy products, quality standards for coffee and coffee beans, adulteration restrictions, processed food requirements, frozen food requirements, and regulation of imported seafood.

Essentially, provisions of the FD&C Act apply U.S. food safety standards to imported food products. Established standards under this description include those pertaining to food labeling, sanitization, and safety. The FD&C Act does not, however, authorize the FDA to grant or deny either a supplier or their product(s) entry into the U.S., as long as the “facilities that produce, store, or otherwise handle the products are registered with FDA, and prior notice of incoming shipments is provided to FDA.”

The Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA)

Congress passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) in late 2010, and President Barack Obama signed it into law on January 4, 2011. Many experts consider the tenets of FSMA to be the most sweeping changes to the U.S. food safety system in more than 70 years.

The legislation focuses upon preventative, wide-ranging, domestic food safety standards; however, the FSMA also accounts for and strengthens FDA oversight on imported foods. For example, the law created the following new mandates concerning import guidelines:

Certification requirements—FSMA grants the FDA authority to require certification of high-risk foods before they foods can enter the country. Certification is granted by a third party.

Certification via third party—A newly established program where approved third parties may certify that a foreign facility meets U.S. food safety standards. This certification may expedite or simplify the import process from approved suppliers.

Entry denial authority—FDA has the authorization to deny imported goods entry into the U.S. if the FDA is/was not allowed to inspect the supplier’s facility.

Qualified importer program—FSMA mandates that the FDA establish a program wherein approved importers may be permitted expedited entry into the U.S. provided they meet certain requirements (e.g., certification from a third party).

Verification of controls—FSMA requires importers to verify that suppliers have acceptable measures in place to proactively ensure food safety. This verification process is the first to require evidence of compliance from a foreign entity.


The United States has reinforced food safety standards not only for domestically produced foods, but also for imported foods. This development makes it clear that the American public demands assurance that the food they consume is safe, no matter its country of origin. No doubt, the degree to which regulatory bodies establish and enforce food safety requirements for foreign foods will expand as long as the country’s appetite for imported foods continues to grow.