The warehouse is one of several in the Los Angeles district where Williams and FDA investigators spend their days sorting and inspecting thousands upon thousands of boxes that fill an area larger than four football fields.
The FDA reported that in 2010 it refused nearly 16,000 food-related shipments out of the more than 10 million that arrived at more than 320 U.S. ports.
“If it comes in here and it’s bad,” said Williams, “we’re gonna get ’em.”
Except when they don’t.
The FDA admits it is simply not up to the task of ensuring the safety of food imports, which are entering this country in ever-growing numbers. The FDA expects 24 million shipments of FDA-regulated goods to pass through the nation’s ports of entry this year, up from 6 million a decade ago.
During that time, the number of FDA investigators stayed constant at about 1,350. The agency began adding investigators in 2009 and now has about 1,800 — still far short of the number required to keep up with the pace of imports.
In 2010, FDA inspectors physically examined 2.1 percent of all food-related imports. The FDA expects only 1.6 percent of all food imports to be examined this year and even less — only 1.5 percent — next year, according to its Office of Regulatory Affairs.
“The Nose” prepares to sniff his way down a mahi-mahi fillet.
Steve Angold works out of a narrow lab at the FDA’s new $40 million testing facility in Irvine, Calif. He is one of about 25 FDA specialists across the country who rely on their senses of sight, touch, taste and smell to detect decomposition or filth in food products.
“It’s either pass or fail,” Angold said. “Ocean grimy smells would be passing; even stale or fishy odors would be passing.”
But if the food smells like turnips or cabbage, it’s probably spoiled, he said.
Reaching the tail, Angold laid the fish on a sterilized countertop.
“There’s nothing wrong with this fish,” he announced. “It’s pretty good.”
Organoleptic testing is one of several methods the FDA uses to determine the safety of food products. Others include chemical and microbiological tests as well as tests to detect insects.
A few doors down from Angold, entomologist John Sedwick placed a sample of sugar cane under a microscope. He moved the petri dish slowly under the lens until he spotted black ants — some whole, some cut in half, all dead — among the particles of sugar.
The FDA is tolerant of ants and other field insects that get mixed in with foods before harvesting because they pose little threat to human health.
“Other things like blowfly maggots, cockroaches, they carry a whole host of foodborne pathogens,” such as bacteria and viruses as well as parasites, Sedwick said, “so there’s a very low tolerance for those kinds of insects.”