Global retail giant Wal-Mart is typically shy of the press, but within recent weeks it has courted coverage, giving interviews, issuing press releases and holding a webinar — all to promote its emphasis on food safety.
Wal-Mart executives want people to know they are increasing the food safety requirements of their suppliers, are working to verify the safety of imported foods and increasing standards in foreign stores as well.
After enduring several press scandals in China surrounding mislabeled or tainted foods, Wal-Mart decided to invest $20.3 million in China over the next three years to repair its image. Part of the money will be used to expand a mobile food-inspection lab program to cover 70 stores in Guangdong Province.
The retailer, which ranked No. 1 on the JOC Top 100 Importers list for 2012, also will increase supplier training, improve store standards, recruit more food safety experts and expand its fresh food distribution.
In the U.S., Wal-Mart wants consumers to know that food sold in its stores already meet the standards proposed in the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in January 2011 but is far from implementation and enforcement.
In 2008, Wal-Mart required its suppliers to comply with the Global Food Safety Initiative standards. “We are the largest buyer and seller of food in the world,” Natalie Dyenson, senior director of supplier food safety for Wal-Mart, said in a May 30 webinar. She said that sheer size and volume of business gives the retail chain the clout and leverage to enforce the requirement and also heightens the need for conformity because Wal-Mart imports approximately 60 percent of its fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of the seafood sold in U.S. stores.
The GFSI sets standards that are recognized in all parts of the world, allowing a company to meet just one set of standards, rather than trying to be certified by myriad agencies and regulations globally or meeting slightly different requirements for different retailers.
In addition to setting the broadly accepted standards, the GFSI requires food suppliers to obtain third-party audit certification of its facilities and processes. Having everyone work from the same set of rules and regulations means an uptick in food safety, fewer recalls, a lower cost of regulation and verification for suppliers and a cost savings along the entire food supply chain, Dyenson said.
Two years after full adoption of the GFSI across its private label suppliers, Wal-Mart found through an internal study a 34 percent reduction in the number of recalls the company had executed across the same supplier base.
By setting standards, putting suppliers in the hot seat, auditing foreign facilities and more quickly tracing items that have to be recalled, Wal-Mart and others using the GFSI already have implemented the central elements of the Food Safety Modernization Act. If tight budgets continue in Washington, having large food sellers adopt the system could be the mechanism by which the concepts of the law are widely adopted.
In an annual report to Congress, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said that with current and projected funding levels, it would be impossible to implement and enforce key provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“The promise of FSMA to modernize the food safety system in the United States and to significantly reduce the burden of foodborne illness cannot be realized without additional funding. Rules can be written, but they can’t be implemented effectively and efficiently with current funding,” according to the report titled “Building domestic capacity to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.”
Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in the report that the FDA needs money to “provide guidance and technical assistance to industry, train federal and state inspectors, modernize and strengthen the inspection program to ensure quality and consistency nationwide, and implement a new import oversight system that will ensure the safety of imported food and create a level playing field for the U.S. food industry.”
The FDA report cited a study by the Congressional Budget Office, which estimated that the first five years of the law’s implementation would require an increase of $583 million over the FDA’s 2010 base budget. Taylor noted that in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 Congress added $100 million, leaving the agency $450 million short.
The failure of Congress to provide the funding will translate into a series of disappointments, according to the report; the agency will be unable to meet the expectations of Congress, the food industry and the public, it said, and the United States will not move from a “chase problems after they occur” system to one based on good science and prevention of problems before they happen.
Despite the FDA’s argument that without proper funding it can’t implement key provisions of the act, a federal judge has ordered agency officials to do just that.
The FDA must publish all of the regulations required under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act by June 30, 2015, Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the U.S. District Court of Northern California ruled in June. Several consumer groups had sued the agency in August 2012 because it had missed statutory deadlines to implement the law. The FDA had told the judge on June 20 that it was unable to pinpoint deadlines and instead suggested “target timelines” that might fall by the regulatory wayside.
Hamilton rejected the FDA’s proposed timeline as inadequate, setting dates for completion of several rules.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the FDA has published three of the seven key rules that were overdue. The FDA has provided draft rules for produce safety, an expansion of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program already in place for several food industries and new regulations for food facility registration.
The FDA has sent three other proposed rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. FDA officials have told the industry that those rules — covering new standards for foreign food suppliers, preventive controls for animal feed and standards ensuring the neutrality of third-party audits — will be published later this year, probably in early fall.
The final rule, which has not been sent to the OMB for review and approval, would implement the Sanitary Food Transportation Act, which was signed into law in 2005.
“Agency officials are telling us the transportation section will be released at the end of this year or early 2014,” said Jon Samson, executive director of the Agricultural & Food Transporters Conference of the American Trucking Associations. “They don’t want to have more than a few rules out for comment at any one time,” Samson said, “because they are worried about ‘comment fatigue’ and want input from the industry.”
He said initial indications are that there will not be any aggressive changes from existing industry practices. “If you are hauling fish, they don’t want you to haul produce in the same container,” Samson said. “But the biggest thing is cleaning out the container after every use, no matter what it hauled. They want it rinsed after every load.”
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