The trend towards importing more food from developing countries is opening up Western countries to greater food safety risks, says a US microbiologist, and food processors have a duty to conduct the necessary checks.
The warning comes from Michael Doyle, a microbiologist from the University of Georgia, in a presentation at the American Society for Microbiology in Boston this week.
He says that trade with developing countries poses a greater risk of foodbourne disease because sanitary standards are not the same.
"Sanitation practices for food production are not universally equivalent throughout the world. Importing foods can more diseases from areas where they are indigenous to locations where they are seldom or do not exist."
Doyle said that the responsibility for ensuring that food imported into the country where it is to be consumed should lies with food industry, and not just with regulatory bodies.
"It is incumbent on food processors to ensure ingredients or products they import are produced under good sanitary practices," he said.
"It is the industry that is responsible for producing safe foods. It is the government's responsibility to verify that they are producing safe foods."
The FDA only actually physically inspects one per cent of over nine million batches of imports each year.
A particular example given by Doyle is crops and seafood grown in China by small-scale individual farmers, who want to get as much from their parcels of land as possible. Often this means they use a lot of pesticides or antibiotics
In some countries, particularly in Asia, untreated human waste and animal manure may be used as fertilisers and in aquaculture.
But despite this, he stressed that many food companies are already conducting checks on their overseas customers, so as to ensure they are safe. Thus, consumers should not automatically assume that just because a food comes from a particular country, it is unsafe.
For instance, a number of scares over food and ingredients imported from China to the US have made headlines in the last two years. Even though there are many firms operating in China who have good sanitation and food safety practices in place, they risk being tarred with the same unsavoury brush as though that do not.
In the US, to which the scientist's talk mainly related, it is expected that imports will continue to grow.
For the first time, food imports to the US outpaced exports in 2004. In 2006 around 15 per cent of food consumed in the US was imported. The most common food imports are fresh produce, tree nuts, and fish and shellfish.