Ensuring Food Safety

Ensuring Food Safety

Food importers will be looking more closely at their foreign suppliers — a new food safety measure signed into law early this year requires them to vouch for the safety of imported products and for the practices at overseas facilities.

The Food Safety Modernization Act gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to enforce safe practices across the food chain, both domestically and overseas.

The import requirements went largely unnoticed during the two years Congress spent on the bill, with most public attention focusing on a domestic traceability program and whether small farms would have to comply.

Traceability is a main component of the domestic portion of the bill and is intended to speed recalls in the event of tainted foods or outbreaks of tainted foods. Several years ago, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association developed a voluntary program that gives commodities a globally standard code and follows each carton of food from field, processing plants, transportation, warehousing and into retail stores.

Regulations for traceability are expected to be similar. Congress exempted small farms and food sold directly to consumers from the requirements, but many companies in the fresh fruit and vegetables sector already are using the system.

In contrast to the small-farm exemption provision, no public controversy erupted over the import requirements during the bill’s trek through Congress, and industry representatives welcomed the changes.

“What this does is require importers to put a risk management program in place, regardless of what type of food they handle,” said Susan Kohn Ross, a trade attorney with Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp in Los Angeles. “Legally, it will no longer be possible to assume that your partners overseas are doing what they should be doing.”

Import components of the bill include:

-- Companies bringing food into the U.S. will have to verify that foreign suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place. Congress instructed the FDA to release its final regulations and guidance within one year of the January enactment of the law.

--The agency must set up a system in which third parties can officially certify that foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards. Congress gave the FDA two years to issue regulations and set up the program. Because most importers aren’t large enough to have their own overseas inspectors and auditors, the certification program is necessary for most companies to comply with the new law.

--The FDA has the authority to require that high-risk imported foods be accompanied by a credible third-party certification or other assurance of compliance as a condition of entry into the U.S.

--The FDA can refuse entry into the U.S. of food from a foreign facility if the agency is denied access by the facility or the country in which the facility is located.

--The FDA must establish a voluntary program for importers — a so-called trusted importer program — that provides for expedited review and entry of foods from participating importers. Congress gave the agency 18 months to set up the program.

--Within one year of enactment, Congress said the FDA must inspect at least 600 foreign facilities, and must double those inspections every year for the next five years.

In addition to the overseas facilities inspections, the law requires inspectors to visit domestic facilities. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said complying with all the mandates will cost an additional $1.4 billion over a five-year period — funding the agency might not receive from Congress.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said he’ll use his position on the Appropriations Committee to deny the agency those funds because the food supply is already “99.99 percent safe” and the nation can’t afford the additional spending.

Although funding has not been approved, the FDA is working on regulations, Hamburg said.

“It doesn’t matter whether we get full funding; we still are required to implement the law,” FDA spokesman Doug Caras said.

Importers and domestic food companies shouldn’t assume the agency will take years to implement the regulations, Ross said. “Congress made it clear that the FDA is required to implement this,” she said. “Food safety is one of the main cause celebres for Congress right now. The regs need to be under way or there will be hell to pay.”

But Ross said the task won’t be as big a job as when Customs had to come up with the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program. “C-TPAT was started from scratch,” she said. “But the food safety law is really just a risk management program very much like the HACCP regulations that have been around for decades.”

The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points make up a systematic method using seven principles for analyzing a food process and determining the possible chemical, physical and biological hazards within that process. The new law in effect expands the categories of foods that are subject to the controls and extends it to imported foods as well.

“I don’t know that they will need to change HACCP a lot,” Ross said. “It works really well if you do it properly.”

Industry representatives told Congress during debates that the law needed to contain “a carrot” and not just “a stick.” Mark FeDuke, import coordinator at VLM Food Trading in Montreal, said the creation of the trusted importer program is the carrot the industry was seeking.

He said VLM and many other companies already have programs that comply with the spirit of the law. “We’re pleased because we think requiring everyone to operate in a safe way will even the playing field so we’re not at a competitive disadvantage,” FeDuke said.

Contact Stephanie Nall at stephnall@aol.com.