By Doug Doan

The FDA has just decided to weigh in on Japan and will be starting to monitor the radiation levels of Japanse Exports.   No doubt the announcement was carefully constructed to make Americans feel better about the food they eat, while simultaneously reminding everyone that the FDA is on the job of food safety.   It might just work too.  Most Americans, have absolutely no idea how products are screening at our various Ports of Entry before they enter the United States.

But for anyone that has been around a bit, the FDA announcement can only be viewed with intense skepticism.  Here is why:

  1. It has been a huge struggle to deploy and operate radiation detectors at Ports of Entry over the last few years.  The early versions never worked.   Too many false positives simple overwhelmed operators and could never be relied upon.
  2. Newer more capable radiation monitors are being deployed but they do not yet exist at all the POEs.  The means that it is not possible to screen for radiation at all our POEs.  We simply do not have the assets in place.  So, if some highly radiated Japanese sushi for example, was brought into the US through a particular POE that did not have the required technology, there would be no way to check the radiation levels at all.
  3. The FDA has very little experience in radiation detection.  They have few qualified inspectors and could not even come close to monitoring all 327 of the POEs in the US.  My guess is that they could not even do 10% of them.

Of course, if the FDA really was serious about the problem of radiated seafood and food exports from Japan, there is an easier way.  The FDA could simply send inspectors to Japan and work directly with Japanese officials to monitor the safety of exports.  Not too surprisingly, there is an enormous fear within the Japanese food industry that exports will be unfairly rejected due to irrational fear over excessive levels of radiation.  Cooperation would be certain.   Moreover, all Japanese seafood exports flow out of a highly organized export system from only 10 different Japanese Ports.

So, ten FDA inspectors, working with Japanese counterparts, at the key Japanese ports could effectively monitor 100% of all Japanese exports.  Even better, procedures should be worked out to gain confidence in the Japanese system and effort to monitor radiation levels with even fewer US officers on site.   By contrast, setting up a system to perform radiation monitoring in the US would take hundreds of officers and require equipment and training that the FDA does not now have.

No doubt like me, you are asking the question, “Well, if all that is true, why would the FDA make this announcement?”  Good question.  Take a look at the last testimony of the FDA Commissioner to Congress and maybe the fog begins to lift.  FDA, in an era of great budgetary pressures, is pushing an ambitious plan to expand the number of inspectors by several thousand each year and is seeking billions more in annual appropriations.  Sure looks to me as if the FDA is using the problems in Japan as a way to push an agency agenda to expand by adding lots more officers and equipment.

Not long ago the White House Chief of Staff famously noted that “a crisis should never be wasted.”  Sure looks like the FDA is not going to waste the crisis in Japan.

Doug Doan serves on the Board of the Border Trade Alliance.