About 15 percent of the U.S. food supply originates outside the nation’s borders, including 50 percent of fresh fruits and 20 percent of fresh vegetables. The new rules focus on supply-chain management, providing extra consumer protection as the Food and Drug Administration said that it’s only capable of inspecting less than 2 percent of imports.
“We all share the goal and are committed to being sure imported food is as safe as domestic food, and it’s a challenge,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food, said in an interview. “We’re in the midst of a process to make sure there are the right prevention standards that protect consumers and protect the food system.”
The new regulations for importers to meet the safety standards will cost the industry as much as $500 million a year, Taylor later said.
“It’s long overdue,” Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group for the fruit and vegetable industry, said in an interview.
In 2011, the FDA inspected 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of imports. The proposal comes as the frequency of disease outbreaks linked to food imports has risen.
Under the first proposal, importers will have to maintain information about the prevention systems used for their products, and they must keep records that the FDA can review, Taylor said.
The second proposal would have the FDA recognize accreditation bodies based on certain criteria such as competency and impartiality. The bodies, which could be foreign government agencies or private companies, would in turn accredit third-party auditors. Certifications may be used by the FDA to determine whether to admit certain food that poses a safety risk, although it won’t serve as a requirement.
The hope is that the standards may be voluntarily adopted by accreditation bodies that also certify private auditors who inspect food in the United States, Taylor said.
“Together, these are the foundation for a new import safety system,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign at Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington-based nonprofit group. “The number of imports continues to grow, so this is important.”
The proposals await a 120-day period during which companies, consumers and other groups can ask the FDA for changes before the regulations are made final.
Gilmer said that his organization has been urging the FDA to extend the comment period until all remaining proposals from the Food Modernization Safety Act have been released. “These are complex and interrelated,” he said.