Under new rules proposed by the Food and Drug Administration in response to “our complex global food supply system,” it will be up to food importers, not the federal government, to make sure their products are safe.
For the first time, U.S. importers would have a clearly defined responsibility to verify that their suppliers produce food that meets U.S. food safety requirements. Importers would be required to have a plan for imported food, “including identifying hazards associated with each food that are reasonably likely to occur,” according to the FDA. Importers also would be required to make sure that these identified hazards are being “adequately controlled.”
“Importers would be accountable for verifying that their foreign suppliers are implementing modern, prevention-oriented food safety practices, and achieving the same level of food safety as domestic growers and processors,” according to a statement on the FDA's website.
The goal is to shift “from a strategy of reaction to one of systematic prevention,” said Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. “Rather than relying primarily on FDA investigators at the ports to detect and respond to food safety problems, importers would be held accountable for verifying, in a manner transparent to the FDA, that the food they import is safe.”
Right now, the FDA only inspects 1 to 2 percent of all imports at American ports and borders. (Yikes.)
The FDA also proposes establishing a program for accreditation bodies, such as foreign government agencies and private companies, which would accredit third-party auditors to audit and issue certifications for foreign food facilities and food, under certain circumstances. The goal is to “strengthen the quality, objectivity and transparency of foreign food safety audits on which many food companies and importers currently rely to help manage the safety of their global food supply chains,” the FDA says. (That means making sure someone other than Tio Juan is looking for rats running through the mango factory.)
The two proposed rules are part of the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law two years ago. They will be available for public comment for the next 120 days.
Imported food comes into the United States from about 150 countries and accounts for about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply, including about 50 percent of the fresh fruits and 20 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed by Americans, the FDA says. (That's more than double the amount just 10 years ago, according to The New York Times.)
One in every six Americans becomes ill from eating contaminated food each year.
“We must work toward global solutions to food safety, so that whether you serve your family food grown locally or imported, you can be confident that it is safe,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
Or, if not confident — given the food-borne illness outbreak we seem to report every week or so — at least a little less queasy about it.
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