Unsafe food.  At the very least, it can make people ill.  At the very worst, it can be fatal.  VOA's Stephanie Ho reports.

Last year, supermarkets in the United States removed fresh spinach from their shelves after three people died and nearly 200 were sickened by E. coli carried by the spinach.

And earlier this year, hundreds of people became ill from salmonella poisoning traced to peanut butter.

More recently, U.S. officials blamed pet food from China for the deaths of a number of cats and dogs. The U.S. government also placed an import alert on five types of Chinese seafood because inspectors found them to contain traces of unauthorized antibiotics.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's top food safety official, David Acheson, says imports are increasingly a problem because of changing American consumer demand. "And what that is doing is it's driving the importation market and really getting at the issue of the global food supply.  American consumers are expecting fresh produce and seafood year round."

The U.S. International Trade Commission says food imports more than doubled in the last decade to nearly $80 billion.  At the same time, the number of FDA officials assigned to inspect food shipments has decreased in the past five years.

Of the nearly nine million total food shipments coming into the United States annually, Acheson says FDA officials are only able to physically examine about one percent in a laboratory. "What is enough?  How do you define enough?  Arguably, unless every food item is held, inspected and tested for every chemical, microbiological contaminant that you can think of, you don't have enough.  Clearly, that's not practical.  We would never have the resources to do that." 

Daniel Fabricant says the FDA is doing the best it can with severely limited resources.  Fabricant is with the Natural Products Association, a non-profit group that represents the natural products industry. "I think ,with the amount of food that comes into the country on a daily basis, they (the FDA) really haven't received a great deal of federal funding, their budget's been cut historically for quite some time now, I think what's being expected of them may be a little much."

Fabricant says most ingredients for natural products come from China.  For example, he says China provides about 80 percent of the vitamin C throughout the entire industry worldwide.

One food company that relies mostly on China and India for its key ingredient is Honest Tea, which makes and sells bottled tea drinks and juices.   The company started in 1998 and now imports tens of thousand of tons of tealeaves from around the world.

The company's president and co-founder, Seth Goldman, says he is lucky because tealeaves are relatively easy to store and ship.  He adds that his company relies on independent, U.S. government-certified inspectors, who work on location, to ensure the product's quality before it is shipped to the United States. "And these inspectors do go in and take samples.  They take leaf samples of the tea and analyze if there are chemicals that shouldn't be in there."

Imports have come under increased scrutiny in the United States.  In July, President Bush established a high-level U.S. government panel to look at ways to better guarantee the safety of food and other products shipped to the United States. "Part of our strategy is we work with countries from which we import good to make sure that their procedures and practices will give us comfort.  And, finally, we'll be working with companies that import goods from around the world, to make sure that their practices meet the high standards that we set for the United States."

Industry is also taking its own steps to improve food safety.  One example is a new partnership between the Natural Products Association and U.S. Pharmacopeia, the private group that sets U.S. government standards for drugs and food additives.

Starting in September, U.S. Pharmacopeia's lab in Shanghai will test Chinese raw ingredients for purity and the results will go into a database.  That way, U.S. companies looking to source raw materials from China will have access to a list of names of certified Chinese suppliers.