The USDA's costly carcass-by-carcass inspection soaks up about 60 percent of US food-safety funding, even though it covers only about 20 percent of the food Americans eat (mostly meat). That leaves the FDA with only around 40 percent of the funding, even though it's responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the food supply. With less funding, it's difficult for the FDA to inspect food facilities on a regular basis.
"In my mind, [the FDA] doesn't have an inspection system," says Scott Hurd, a veterinary professor at Iowa State University and former deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food safety at the USDA. "It has a 'wander around and hope you bump into something' " approach.
If American inspectors can't keep adequate tabs on what goes on within US borders, imported foods pose a special challenge.
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Places like California, Florida, and New Jersey, which once supplied most of America's fruits and vegetables, compete increasingly with produce from abroad. In 2008, the US imported nearly half of its fresh fruits and nearly a fifth of its vegetables, much of it from Mexico. Mexican imports of onions to the US have grown 28 percent this past decade; tomatoes, 77 percent; broccoli and cauliflower, 429 percent.