Import Refusals and Lessons that Can Be Learned
Every day, in most countries of the world, food products are refused entry. Issues can range from paperwork issues, to food safety and adulteration issues.
No country’s manufacturers are immune to these mistakes, some of which are caused by language barriers and others by the complexity of the inbound government’s systems.
In an effort to improve the flow of goods around the world, the Codex Alimentarius was established. Even with the establishment of standards, procedures, additives, veterinary drug and pesticide maximum residue limits (MRLs,) the fundamental problem of harmonization has not been fully resolved. There are many country-specific regulations and some industry issues that continue to create ongoing problems. Many countries have also established new laws and regulations or revised existing ones. Unfortunately, this only adds to the layers of import complexity and serves to further increase refusals. The industry needs to learn from its mistakes and the mistakes of others.
Import Refusal Reports
Some countries publish details of all refusals and issues in databases. For example, the US food and Drug Administration (US FDA) publishes a database with their import refusal report.1 Starting from May 2017, some importers will be advised to look at this information and use it to assess the risk of a product and company being imported into the US from a given location, as required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The data analysis is done by the FDA’s computer system, though there is human input. All this data is then used by the system to make determinations.
Unfortunately, because of the complexity of the global market this database does not necessarily list the origin country of a food product. It lists the country of the US FDA registered company which shipped the item. One example is that since 2014 most of the refusals into the US from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been because rice (basmati and plain white) had pesticide residues not in compliance with US MRLs. The UAE is not considered the world’s leading producer of rice. Many of the UAE companies listed are trading companies, so we can safely conclude that this rice is coming from other locations. As the US FDA can assess that those goods are not coming directly to the US they may be more likely to hold and test them for compliance, or hold and have the responsible party test for compliance.
Interpreting the Data
Sometimes the information provided to the database is unusual. Looking at US FDA refusals for Vibrio provides information that since the beginning of 2014 only one item, shelled coconut, has been refused because of Vibrio contamination. This issue was first noted for product arriving from or through India, but the computer system/personnel has flagged the issue and there have been subsequent refusals of goods from the Philippines and Vietnam while the US FDA investigates this contaminant. This process does not mean that the US FDA is only testing, or having the responsible party test, other products for Vibrio; it establishes that those importing shelled coconut into the US should test it for Vibrio before shipping.
Of course, some of the information provided makes it obvious which categories and areas of the world are involved. For example, for the contaminant nitrofurans, the US FDA refusal information indicates that shrimp, prawns and crabs are the primary products refused because of contamination, or suspected contamination, with nitrofurans. Occasionally, some farm raised fish or frog legs are also found to be contaminated. Most nitrofurans contamination is found is Asia, a region that hosts most of the top ten suppliers of farm raised shrimp and prawns to the US.
In Malaysia, the incidence of shrimp and prawn contamination with nitrofurans and chloramphenicol became so common that on April 18 2016 the US FDA issued Import Alert 16-136 2 placing all shrimp and prawns on automatic detention. The US FDA tested 138 shrimp shipments, 32% of which contained product that was contaminated with one of these veterinary drugs. Unfortunately, this is not unusual. Often, when a problem is identified for a specific category of product from a specific location, it also affects the entire region.
Domestic Issues Included Too
In the database, users can also find the country code for the United States. Product data is not confined to imported products. It also includes data on domestic products, and products that may have been imported but are now domestic. Many of these product problems are related to labeling issues and filth.
On January 11, 2017, Australia published a note that food product labeling amounts to 75% of refusals.3 The issues identified relate to nutrition information, importer details, ingredients and country of origin. Under the Imported Food Inspection Scheme (IFIS), during the first half of 2016 the government performed 17,464 labeling assessments and found 366 noncompliance issues. Date marking is another chronic issue with imported items. These issues can be simply resolved. Labeling reviews can be carried out by a third party who understands the company’s labels and the rules of the destination market, ensuring compliance before the label is printed and attached to the product, thereby preventing rejection by the receiving country.
In common with many countries, Australia posts these import notices 4 in an effort to try and resolve issues before produce is shipped, instead of addressing it later, as well as to reduce manufacturers’ costs associated with failed imports.
Of course, the US and Australia are not the only countries doing this. The European Union (EU) also runs a scheme. Nigerian snacks and foodstuffs have been repeatedly rejected by the EU because of 5 contamination. The reason appears to be that the countries and companies involved do not have a clear knowledge or understanding of the EU requirements, nor does the government have the resources or structure necessary to prevent contaminated products from being shipped. This issue is not unusual. As countries and companies expand into the global market from their domestic market they need additional support and expertise to ensure compliance and easy access to new markets.
While support sometimes comes from governments, it can also come from the private sector. Many companies specialize in helping customers to ship items from one country to another. For some, this can be as simple as completing the correct paperwork, but international trade often requires testing and verification, as well as compliance with a specific program. For food, the best way to determine testing parameters is to start with a global trade standard, such as the Codex Alimentarius, and then add any location requirements that exceed or differ from this standard. Compliance can usually be verified by an audit. Many countries programs require HACCP compliance for a food facility. Additional requirements such as preventive control, as noted in the FSMA and in the Safe Food for Canadians Act, require more intensive procedures and monitoring of systems in food production and handling facilities. Raw and finished goods material traceability may also be required.
Before a company can ship products from the country of origin to another, it must obtain knowledge of the requirements needed. Often, because of the complexity of international import systems, a company will benefit from working with a third party experienced in the necessary labeling, testing, audit verification, paperwork and general requirements necessary to achieve their goal.
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1 FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration (Import Refusal Report)
2 FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration Protecting and Promoting Your Health (Import Alert 16-136)
3 Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (IFN 01-17 - Date Marking and Other Labelling Requirements for Imported Food)
4 Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (Important Food Notices)
5 Bakery and Snacks (Contaminated Illegal Nigerian Snacks and Foodstuffs Repeatedly Rejected by EU)