Safety of food imported from Asia?
April 12, 2016 4:42 PM   Subscribe

I love my tamarind paste, fish sauce, sweet potato noodles and other Asian cooking ingredients. But considering their countries of origin, and our pathetic FDA (non-)enforcement of food safety, I am concerned. Should I be? Are there any third parties that test this stuff, and is there any way to insure quality, even if it's more expensive?
posted by 4midori to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Every time I buy products of foreign origin in ethnic grocery stores (so, items not distributed through mainstream American channels), they have American nutrition and ingredients labels stuck onto them. This has always implied, to me, that there are standards for importing foodstuffs for the American market, and that all imported items sold for human consumption in the US have to comply with the same standards as domestically produced foods.

Also, to be perfectly honest, a lot of this stuff is Asian cuisine produced in the USA. Fish sauce is absolutely produced in the US for domestic consumption, not necessarily imported from Asia. I would only have any concern at all about items labeled as made overseas, and even then, as above my understanding is that there are standards imported items have to comply with.
posted by Sara C. at 5:19 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you have any evidence to support your assumption that the FDA does not enforce food safety rules, especially on imported foods? That seems to be a rather weak link in your chain of logic.

Asia's also a big place. Some countries in Asia have very high standards of food safety. What countries do you have in mind? What specific products and brands are you thinking of?
posted by My Dad at 5:20 PM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Anything with the USDA Organic label meets the USDA Organic certification standards, even if it's been produced outside the USA. This is more a "quality" than a "safety" standard, but there can be problems with domestic organic producers too.
posted by Small Dollar at 5:30 PM on April 12, 2016

I'm no expert, but live in Japan where most people travel around east Asia and stores import from neighboring countries, most of whom have less rigid food safety enforcement than we do domestically.

My general rule is to follow big brands or brands that have been around the longest. See if they have a website with more info and use your general intuition. Most of the brands that are already exporting internationally are much safer operations than their generic domestic competitors.

Also you may have better luck buying from a US chain like Whole Foods or Trader Joes than an Asian owned market because the US shops stock brands that have partnered with larger distributors, and hence should be more "vetted."
posted by p3t3 at 5:30 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

The CDC seems perfectly willing to cause multi million $$ recalls for 50 cases of e coli and no deaths. I don't think it's fair to say that no one is paying attention. If these products were making people ill, there would be a response.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:03 PM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, there's antibiotic resistance, about which the FDA has done very little:
And the FDA's shortage of inspectors:
And the supplement problem:

I've seen so much of this over the years that hearing another story about the toothless FDA is just like hearing the same shitty song on the radio you've heard 1,000 times before.

The stuff I buy comes from China (sweet potato noodles), Thailand (coconut cream, tamarind paste), Taiwan (mochi), but I'm just getting in to Asian cooking, so there will be more ingredients from more countries.

Buying U.S.-made stuff may help somewhat.
posted by 4midori at 6:23 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

A contrary opinion: after reading about the scandals with olive oil , Melamine and Honey I'm pretty skeptical about food from any foreign country. Yes, USA has had food scandals as well, but I believe there are some higher quality metrics being used here, and we are probably safer than most.

Plus, it's good to buy local, right?
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:23 PM on April 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Do you have any evidence to support your assumption that the FDA does not enforce food safety rules, especially on imported foods?

This is actually a pretty well known issue. They are vastly underfunded and understaffed, from what I've read.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:01 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Do you have any evidence to support your assumption that the FDA does not enforce food safety rules, especially on imported foods?

the FDA only inspects about 2.7 percent of imported food

FDA examined 3.7 percent of foreign shrimp shipments in 2014 and tested 0.7 percent.

Buyer beware.
posted by LoveHam at 7:45 PM on April 12, 2016

There are bad actors out there. I used to work for what turned out to be one, years ago. One time they had a container load of one product from India that had no ingredients on the label, so one of the owners went out to a store and picked up the domestic equivalent, copied the ingredients off of that, had labels made and got a crew to affix them by hand to all 20000 or so bottles, problem solved! They weren't in the Asian food market, so I'm not saying anything specific about that, most of their customers were dollar stores.
posted by rodlymight at 7:58 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I realize these might be uncommon ingredients in the US, but if Costco sells any of these things, I would buy them there because they apparently do ongoing thorough lab testing of food products they sell. I doubt many other retailers do that.
posted by OCDan at 10:14 PM on April 12, 2016

« Older Dealing With Difficult People: The Micromanager   |   What makes one building harder to make than... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.