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Originally published Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: FDA must ensure safety of imported food

Protections in a new FDA law need to be fully implemented to protect people from foodborne illnesses, writes guest columnist Merrill Behnke.

Special to The Times

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SEVERAL months ago, my life was changed forever when I fell severely ill after eating imported ricotta cheese contaminated by the dangerous bacteria Listeria. Protections in a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) law could help prevent infections, like mine, from harming other Americans. But they need to be fully implemented to help anyone.

What began as severe pain and a 102-degree fever on Aug. 28 turned into a trip to the emergency room, 16 days in the hospital and several weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatments from home. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 3,000 Americans die from foodborne illness.Knowing that, I feel lucky to have survived.

When I became sick, my mother had to fly across the country to help care for me. Forced to miss work, my husband stayed at home so he could care for our 10-month-old daughter, Channing, while doctors tried to determine the cause of my worsening condition.

Upon my release from the hospital, the physical toll was obvious, but my emotional scars were just beginning to manifest. My daily life changed radically. I was unable to play with Channing the way I once did, and my energy level was limited for the first few months after leaving the hospital. Today, I still have not gained back the weight I lost during my illness, and I experience memory problems and have difficulty concentrating.

It’s been roughly two years since President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act into law. This legislation, the first major update to our food-safety system since the Great Depression, signaled a much-needed shift in FDA’s approach from reaction to prevention.

Earlier this year, the FDA issued draft rules under the law that set preventive measures for processed foods and more stringent standards for produce aimed at reducing the threat posed by several possible sources of contamination. However, the Obama administration has yet to issue a proposal that holds importers responsible for the safety of the food that crosses our borders — like the cheese that almost cost me my life.

This extremely important measure needs to be issued as soon as possible and would ensure that foreign foods are held to stringent safety standards comparable to those for American products.

In recent years, food imports have increased by about 10 percent annually. In fact, FDA data show that we get about 15 percent of our food from abroad. Approximately two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables we eat — and 80 percent of seafood — come from overseas.

The CDC reports that since August 2011, contamination in a variety of imported foods, including cheese, mangoes, pine nuts, papayas and raw tuna, have caused foodborne outbreaks in five states and killed four people.

All foods, including those that are imported, must be held to the same high standards. The pending proposal is expected to stop these outbreaks before they happen by, for the first time, making importers responsible for the safety of the food they bring into the U.S.

A related rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act would also require the use of private, third-party auditors in certain instances to ensure the safety of these imports.

While the act represents great potential for a safe food supply, we may not see its extraordinary promise realized until it is fully implemented. Each month they wait, more Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses: an estimated 48 million every year.

There have been 15 reported multistate outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated products since President Obama signed the act. More than 400 people have been hospitalized from these high-profile incidents as a result. And while the statistics are startling, they represent more than just numbers. These are people just like you and me — mothers, wives and daughters whose lives have been impacted by avoidable illnesses.

It’s time to make these food protections a reality.

Merrill Behnke lives in Bellevue.

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