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    Experts weigh in on new rules for food safety

     Aaron Sirles, from Watsonville, Calif., was ill for weeks and lost time from work after consuming pomegranate seeds shipped from Turkey. He was sickened as part of a multi-state outbreak of hepatitis A linked to contaminated, imported produce. (Image courtsey of the Sirles family)

    Aaron Sirles, from Watsonville, Calif., was ill for weeks and lost time from work after consuming pomegranate seeds shipped from Turkey. He was sickened as part of a multi-state outbreak of hepatitis A linked to contaminated, imported produce. (Image courtsey of the Sirles family)

    Food industry experts and consumer advocates are poised to offer their opinion of a proposed rule that would shift more oversight responsibility to the companies that import food into the United States.

    Right now government inspectors physically check only about 2 percent of U.S. food imports.

    Sandra Eskin, head of the food safety project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the proposed rules enlist more on-the-ground help by requiring companies to better track the safety profile of the food they bring into the states.

    “The importer is the responsible party who should be the one who assures the safety,” Eskin said.

    An outbreak of hepatitis A this summer was linked to imported pomegranate seeds from Turkey and, once again, underscored the need for more oversight. Eskin said the new rule gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration another tool to protect consumers.

    “So FDA could go to the importer and say: ‘Let me see your records. Let me see the evidence that you have that certifies, that assures, that verifies that the product you are importing is safe,'” she said.

    What happens next–be it fines or a simple block on a particular import–isn’t entirely clear. Eskin and other watchdogs say they’re still digging into the proposed rules to figure if the rule has regulatory teeth.

    “I don’t think anything’s going to be foolproof,” said Martin Bucknavage, a senior food safety extension associate based at Penn State University.

    “There are many things that can happen in the food supply chain, but certainly, it helps set standards for companies that are going to make shipments to the United States.”

    Bucknavage said the proposed rules also establish a system of third-party auditors to keep tabs on importer activities.

    Nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables consumed here, come from outsides the U.S., according to the FDA.

    Overall, the American appetite for foreign foods is growing, according to FDA data. But after a health scare this summer, one central California family is wary.

    Polly Sirles’s husband Aaron fell ill with hepatitis A after the family drank smoothies made with frozen organic berries from Townsend Farms which were sold at Costco and linked to the hep A illness.

    Aaron was out of work for four weeks, and Sirles says her husband’s medical bills are near $70,000.

    The Sirles family plans on eating only local food–for a little while at least.

    “It will absolutely be a higher price for my family, but this has absolutely turned our family upside down,” Sirles said. “I’m not willing to take the risk right now.”

    Sirles said she’s hopeful the new rule for importers will improve food safety, but she’d like to see more government inspectors on the job too.

    “Being someone who’s gone through the nightmare of having something contaminated,” she said, “I just need everybody to step up, it has definitely changed my view of how I’m going to purchase in the future.”

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