views updated May 29 2018


INSPECTION. Among the many systems that assure food safety, inspection is one of the most critical and difficult. As the global trade of food increased over time, veterinary experts of the Organization International des Epizooties (OIE) addressed the scientific challenge of confining animal diseases, which are the origin of most food-borne pathogens. In 1951 the spread of plant pests through trade became the concern of the International Plant Protection Committee (IPPC) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO organized a set of international standards, the Codex Alimentarius, which describes preferred methods of food production to minimize contaminants and toxicants to keep them below acceptable tolerance levels, with recommendations from the OIE and IPPC. In the early twenty-first century, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS) was the system that governed how inspection standards may be used in the fair trade of foods. This agreement was established by members of the 1994 Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Together, Codex and SPS work to improve the quality of traded foods, limit the movement of crop pests and animal diseases, and mediate fair trade.

In the United States, inspection is performed by several different agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanographic and Aeronautic Administration, and the U.S. Customs Service. The following laws empower these agencies to perform inspections: the Federal Meat Inspection Act (1906), the Seafood Inspection Act (1934), and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1938) (Table 1). While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cannot demand that a plant be closed, and while product recalls are voluntary, the withdrawal of all inspectors effectively means a plant can no longer ship its products since inspection is mandatory. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority to inspect food production facilities overseas, reject foods from entry into the United States, and even pull defective products off of store shelves.

U.S. Customs authorities assist in processing food imports at 150 ports of entry. In 2000, the FDA's limited resources allowed direct physical inspection of only 1 percent of imports. Still the system manages to catch problems (logging in over eight million lines of import

U.S. food inspection system
Food Agency/office Target
Meat, poultry, and processed egg products USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Pathogens, filth, drug residues
Imported plants and pests, live animals USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Crop diseases
Fresh plant foods and eggs, processed foods, seafood, and dairy FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) Pathogens, toxins, filth, pesticides, additives

detentions annually). In one season the reasons given for rejection of imports included: filth (32 percent); microbial pathogens and molds (17 percent); low-acid canned foods (12.5 percent); defective or misleading labeling (10 percent); pesticides and heavy metals (11.5 percent); decomposition (7.5 percent); and food additives (6.5 percent).

If an inspector suspects that products are unsafe, items can be detained automatically (especially if a number of previous shipments have been defective). An agency usually has a month to test the product and make a decision on its admissibility, but the importer may apply for early release after five days if the product is perishable. Permanently detained food must be remanufactured to acceptable standards, destroyed, or removed from the country within a certain period of time (three months in the United States).

In other countries inspection of imports may be a local, national, or regional endeavor. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is the inspection authority in that country. In Central America, the Organismo Internacional Regional de Sanidad Agropecuaria, or International Regional Organization for Plant and Animal Sanitation (OIRSA), is the agency responsible for testing imports and assuring their safety.

Issues that arise from inspection are of two main types: political and scientific. First, if the reason for detention of an inspected food item is not transparent and scientifically valid, the importing country may be accused of erecting a trade barrier. Second, adequate sampling and testing are technically difficult. Traditionally, meat and poultry were inspected through organoleptic or sensory evaluation (smell, sight, touch), which worked for detection of gross filth, decomposition, and molds, but not for detection of microbial pathogens. Agents have begun to perform microbiological tests on meat and poultry, but such tests must be rapid, accurate, and relatively inexpensive to be useful. Perishable foods that are detained too long may not be fit for consumption by the time test results are available. Tests for many pathogens are still in development; agents often test for common pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, which serve as biomarkers for the existence of other pathogens in a food sample.

Even when an excellent testing procedure is available, sampling poses a problem, especially in the case of solid or semi-solid foods. Contamination may be isolated in one part of a carcass, a head of lettuce, or a production run of some other food. Sampling the entire product would eliminate the worry that a pathogen was missed, but there would be no product left to eat. Thus an elaborate science of statistical testing has evolved to ascertain with reasonable probability whether a product is contaminated based on a certain number of samples of a certain size. Still, there is no guarantee that the product is safe or that subsequent abuse will not render it unsafe.

To streamline the inspection process, many countries require government-validated export certificates to verify whether a product contains what the label says it does and that it has been approved for safety and offered for consumption in the country that produces it. Making certification an internationally harmonious process is the focus of the Codex Committee for Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems.

See also Codex Alimentarius; FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization); Food Safety; Food Trade Associations; Government Agencies; International Agencies.


Codex Alimentarius website with links to WTO, OIE, IPPC. Available at

Food and Drug Administration website. Available at See the Office of Regulatory Affairs information on import inspections.

World Trade Organization website. Available at Contains Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement information. See the agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.

USDA websites. Available at and

Robin Yeaton Woo


views updated May 17 2018


An examination or investigation; the right to see and duplicate documents, enter land, or make other such examinations for the purpose of gathering evidence.

The inspection of documents relevant to issues in a lawsuit is an important element of discovery.