The Food and Drug Administration has a daunting task ahead: inspecting food imports to keep the U.S. food supply safe, according to a new report by the congressional General Accountability Office.
Given the FDA’s limited resources, the GAO recommends the agency follow the lead of the Food Safety and Inspection Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and use a commodity-by-commodity approach to assess the food safety systems of foreign nations.
Getting the FDA to take a more flexible approach in effect would leverage the efforts and expertise of the other nations’ systems, the GAO said.
“To better leverage the oversight resources of foreign countries and ensure the safety of food imports, we recommend … the FDA revise its comparability approach to one that allows for the flexibility of assessing foreign food safety systems for particular food products, such as seafood, when a full comparability assessment of foreign countries’ food safety systems may not be feasible,” the GAO said in a report to Congress.
Although no proposed regulations have been made public, the FDA wants to use an assessment of a nation’s entire food safety system to decide if it is comparable with U.S. regulations and processes.
“The agency expects a limited number of countries to seek comparability with the United States, because, in part, most countries will not meet the FDA requirement that the foreign government’s domestic and export food safety systems be comparable with the U.S. system for all their food products,” the GAO said. “According to FDA documents, some countries have robust export certification programs for a specific food product, but their overall food safety systems, including domestic production systems, may not be comparable with those of the United States, and therefore, FDA would not find their food safety systems comparable.”
The GAO points out in its report that the FDA already used the commodity-by-commodity approach when it conducted a pilot program with seafood imports in 2010.
The congressional watchdog also pointed to the USDA’s FSIS system for ensuring the safety of domestic and imported meat, poultry and processed egg products. The USDA agency requires countries wishing to export those items to the U.S. must show their food safety systems for those products are equivalent to those of the U.S.
FSIS also relies on periodic audits and inspections at 30 points of entry in the U.S.
The GAO also told Congress the FDA shouldn’t rely on a system of third-party certifications, because it would be difficult to set up the certification rules and later to police the actions. “If FDA had a comparability assessment agreement with a foreign country, a foreign competent authority would address any identified problems and take regulatory actions across the supply chain, as necessary,” according to the report.
The FDA has been widely criticized by consumer groups and lawmakers for its delay in implementing provisions of the Food Safety and Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in January 2011. Two consumer groups have stepped up their criticism of delays in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act by filing a lawsuit against the Obama administration.
The lawsuit against the Office of Management and Budget and the FDA alleges the FSMA “has been unlawfully delayed for more than a year and a half, leaving vital prevention remedies to substandard U.S. food safety rules unenforceable, and the nation’s public health in jeopardy.” The suit was filed Aug. 30 in the U.S. District Court of Northern California by the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Environmental Health.
A representative for the Center for Food Safety speculated the OMB didn’t want to give Republicans an election weapon to point to the food safety rules as job-killing regulations.
Now that the election is over, consumer groups are expected to renew their pressure on the Obama administration to implement key provisions of the law.
One big problem with implementation will be a lack of funding for the FDA. Agency officials have been quietly lobbying for more user fees to have the food industry pick up a portion of the tab.
According to a report by the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg suggested in a speech in early October to a think tank that the agency’s federal funding should be complemented by industry user fees.
Hamburg promised the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies the agency would release food safety regulations “very soon,” but said implementation has been lagging because of insufficient funding from Congress.
Hamburg said there has been a transformation and expansion in the agency’s responsibilities from mostly U.S.-centered to a global role. She pointed out that nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables eaten in the U.S. come from another country, according to the alliance summary of her remarks.
Contact Stephanie Nall at firstname.lastname@example.org.