By: James Peacock

Legislators in the Idaho State Congress will be voting soon on a measure that will determine whether or not imported foods are held to the same standard as foods grown here in the United States. If successfully passed, the memorial bill will be sent to Congress in Washington D.C., where it will be debated by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The memorial bill, written by Sid Freeman, was passed unanimously through the Idaho House Agricultural Affairs Committee. The bill itself points out that while farmers based here in the United States have to fund their own audits and USDA inspections, foreign companies are not held to the same standard. The requirements currently in place maintain that foreign goods must meet the same standard and domestic goods. However, there is currently no system in place to check on foreign companies. Without these audits and USDA inspections, proponents argue, there is no way to confirm that foreign companies are following the rules. The bill introduced to the Idaho legislature would require that all companies, foreign or domestic, are required to fund their own audits and inspections.

While this bill has many proponents across the nation, there are some who believe that this ill will run into trouble. A specific portion of the bill, the requirement that the country of origin be presented clearly on products, was recently struck down by the World Trade Organization (WTO) when the United States Congress attempted to implement a similar rule. The WTO cited trade deals with Mexico and Canada as the justification for striking down the idea. This and other issues have led to quite the opposition to this memorial bill. Amongst the opponents are the Food Producers of Idaho, which represents the interests of many of Idaho’s agricultural groups. Those for and against the measure have said that they are willing to help correct and mend some of the issues with the bill. Proponents remain optimistic, hoping to finally “level the playing field and make sure food products that come in are as safe as what we produce right here,” as Rep. Judy Boyle has said.

This bill has been proposed amidst a rise in outbreaks being caused by imported foodstuffs. Late last year there were a pair of outbreaks related to imported goods, and both were widespread Hepatitis A outbreaks. In the contiguous United States, a Hepatitis A outbreak was linked to imported frozen Egyptian strawberries. Nearly 150 people were sickened in 9 different states. The outbreak hit the hardest on the east coast, specifically impacting Virginia more than other states. These illnesses were tied to fruit smoothies made at Tropical Smoothie Cafe. The Cafe would eventually pull all frozen Egyptian strawberries from their stores, and also switched suppliers. Even though companies claimed that the strawberries were free of any contamination, the FDA was able to find Hepatitis in several different samples. ICAPP, the company who imported the strawberries, was forced to recall all of their products amidst the FDA’s findings. The outbreak caused 56 people to be hospitalized, and there were no deaths reported. Ore detailed information about this outbreak can be found here.

At around the same time as the strawberry outbreak, there was another outbreak of Hepatitis A. This time, though, the outbreak would be limited to the Hawaiian Islands. In this outbreak, scallops imported from the Philippines caused an outbreak of Hepatitis A to occur on the Hawaiian Islands. The investigation began in mid-July, when the Hawaii Department of Health began to receive word that quite a few people were being diagnosed with Hepatitis A on the island of Oahu. They would launch an investigation and began to offer vaccines for the Hepatitis A virus. Even with this response, though, the amount of illnesses caused by this outbreak would continue to rise well into mid-December, and would eventually reach 292. A case study run by the Hawaii Department of Health, plus other breakthroughs in the investigation led health officials to determine that Sea Port Bay scallops were the source of the outbreak. Because of the case study, health officials embargoed the imported scallops, most of which were, fortunately, still at the warehouse. Contaminated scallops had been distributed to restaurants in Oahu and Kauai, and many of these restaurants were promptly closed. Contaminated scallops were pulled from all restaurants they had been distributed to. The long incubation period associated with Hepatitis A, which usually begins to show symptoms between 15 and 50 days after infection, contributed heavily to the size of the outbreak, as well as the length of time required to investigate it. The 292 people sickened in this outbreak had illness onset dates between June 12th and October 9th.  Seventy-four people sickened in this outbreak have required hospitalization because of their illness. More detailed information about this outbreak can be found here.

Foodborne illness outbreaks themselves are not limited to the United States. In fact, many foodborne outbreaks that take place on the international scale are often larger and have a larger impact than those in the United States. Any country in the world may suffer a foodborne illness outbreak, meaning those contaminations could be imported to the United States. Recently, there was a fairly large outbreak of Campylobacter poisoning in the United Kingdom. Like many recent outbreaks here in the States, this outbreak was linked to the consumption of raw milk produced within the United Kingdom. More than 60 people were sickened in that outbreak, and all milk produced at that farm was recalled. This outbreak eventually led to the implementation of a ban that precluded the farm from producing raw, unpasteurized milk until the source of the outbreak was found and the issues were corrected. For information about this UK outbreak, click here.

With the amount of outbreaks on the international scale increasing, and the number of outbreaks here in the US caused by imported goods also increasing, it is easy to understand why this memorial is being proposed. Again, while the standards that domestic farmers are held to also apply to imported goods, in many cases imported products do not undergo the same testing and inspections that domestic products are subjected to. This memorial would require that international companies foot the bill for any audits and inspections conducted by the USDA, as domestic companies do. If this memorial passes the Idaho House of Representatives and the Senate, it will be presented to the governor of Idaho. If the governor signs the bill, it will then be sent to the United States Congress to be debated.