The project follows recalls of tainted toothpaste, pet food, seafood and other products from China, as well as a contaminated blood thinner blamed for dozens of deaths in 2008.
About 20 million of shipments of food, medicine, medical devices and cosmetics are expected to arrive at U.S. ports this year, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said. That is up from about 6 million a decade ago.
With the growing flood of products, inspectors typically examine less than 1 percent.
Under the new system, border staff can check products in a computer database that gives a score for the risk level. The score is calculated in part based on whether the maker has a history of recalls and how susceptible the product is to contamination.
High-score products can be set aside for further checks.
The program will allow inspectors to target shipments for inspection that pose the greatest risk, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Inspectors still will be checking only a small percentage of shipments, but will be using better intelligence to decide what to check, Hamburg said.
The program, called Predict, has been tested in Los Angeles and is being implemented in New York, Hamburg said.
The FDA plans to have the system in use nationwide by early summer, agency spokesman George Strait said.
An estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of all food consumed in the United States originates from abroad and up to 40 percent of medicines are imported, Hamburg said.
Henry Chin, a senior director for food safety at Coca-Cola Co, said the program would help companies get their products through the border more quickly since inspectors could focus on the riskiest products.
A risk-based system for inspections is something I think we all support, Chin said in an interview. It's going result in much benefit for consumer safety (and) it's going to be of benefit to the industry as a whole.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; editing by Andre Grenon)