Some of the largest players in the food industry have supported the new regulations and have lobbied the White House to move forward with them quickly.
“We’re a large, international company, with operations in 65 countries and over 1,000 food-producing facilities. For us, having consistency in our food-safety-management systems is essential,” said Michael Robach, vice president for food safety at Cargill. He said most companies work hard to make sure their products are safe. “But some people aren’t doing it. We’d like to see a level playing field.”
The imported food proposals come on the heels of other standards the FDA proposed in January, governing domestic food production. Those rules would affect everyone from fruit and vegetable farmers to major food processing operations. For example, produce farmers would have to ensure that their crops aren’t contaminated by animal waste or a tainted water supply; they also would have to provide adequate restrooms and hand-washing facilities for field workers. Food manufacturers would face stricter sanitation standards, from increased bathroom cleanliness rules to more stringent pest-control requirements.
The proposed import rules, like the domestic versions before it, languished at the administration’s Office of Management and Budget for more than a year, much to the frustration of consumer advocates and some FDA officials. The process grew so drawn out that the nonprofit Center for Food Safety sued the FDA for missing deadlines set by Congress. Last month, a federal judge in California agreed and ordered the agency to unveil all its food-safety proposals by late this year and finalize new rules by mid-2015.
While the latest rules were pending, numerous outbreaks involving foreign imports have sickened hundreds of Americans — including pomegranates from Turkey that have caused hepatitis A and mangoes from Mexico contaminated with salmonella.
“We want these rules finalized as soon as possible. With the delays we’ve had, we’ve seen outbreak after outbreak,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the food-safety campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Contaminated foods sicken an estimated 48 million Americans and kill 3,000 each year.
FDA plans to accept comments for the next 120 days on the proposals. It could take years before the sort of food-safety system the FDA envisions takes shape. The comment period for the domestic food rules has been extended multiple times, and given the gridlock on Capitol Hill, it remains uncertain whether the agency will get the funding it says it needs to put the law in place.
“If we don’t get the resources to adequately implement these rules,” the FDA’s Taylor said, “we won’t be able to implement them.”