Government wants private firms to aid more in food safety

July 28, 2013

Food imported into the United States will have to meet the same safety standards as domestic products under a government proposal that would put more responsibility for policing safety on companies and their suppliers.

Importers will have to verify that foreign suppliers have controls to prevent contamination, and the United Stateswill establish a system to recognize organizations that accredit industry-run inspectors, according to two regulations proposed Friday. The rules stem from the $1.4 billion Food Modernization Safety Act, which was passed in 2011.

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.

The act, which has been beset by delays, is the biggest change to food industry oversight since 1938. It was prompted partly by recalls of tainted cookie dough, spinach, jalapeños and peanuts that killed at least nine people and sickened more than 700 in 2008 and 2009.

The law gave the FDA more power to police domestic and international producers, carry out inspections and force recalls of tainted products in an effort to steer government oversight toward preventing contamination rather than responding once problems occur.

The Obama administration in January issued the first major proposal stemming from the law when it said domestic producers would have one year to develop a formal plan for preventing the causes of foodborne illness. Those rules would also force produce farms with a “high risk” of contamination to develop new hygiene, soil and temperature controls. Those rules have yet to be made final, and the FDA saidrecently that it’s extending the public-comment period for the proposal until Sept. 16.

“Assuring the safety of imported food is essential to help prevent foodborne illness and protect consumers,” Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America, said in an e-mail. “We look forward to reviewing the proposals carefully and providing comments to the agency.”

Over the past two decades, the industry has taken on much of the FDA’s role in ensuring that what Americans eat is safe, a Bloomberg Markets magazine report in November showed. The agency has said it doesn’t have the resources to completely oversee the $1.2 trillion in annual food sales.

The quality of private inspections has come under criticism because foodborne outbreaks have occurred despite companies getting high scores on the third-party audits. The private audit system gave sterling marks to a cantaloupe farm, an egg producer, a peanut processor and a ground-turkey plant — either before or right after they supplied toxic food, according to the report.

Food sickens 48 million Americans a year, with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 killed, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

— Bloomberg News

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