FDA releases two new food-safety rules that show food importation changes

by Joan Murphy | July 31, 2013

WASHINGTON — Importers along with food companies will have to share the responsibility of food safety for the first time under far-reaching food import regulations proposed July 26 by the Food & Drug Administration.

The FDA released two long-awaited proposals to implement FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that will change the importation of foods.

The proposed Foreign Supplier Verification Program will require importers to verify that their suppliers are meeting U.S. standards and adhere to FDA’s proposed produce safety and preventive standards for foods, which were proposed in January 2013.

The second rule proposed by FDA would set new standards for accreditation of third-party auditors. Under the new food-safety law, the accreditation bodies, which could be foreign government agencies or private companies, would accredit third-party auditors to audit businesses and issue certificates to some foreign food facilities. Importers will not generally be required to obtain certificates unless FDA determines that certain imported foods pose a high safety risk for U.S. consumers.

During a press conference, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted that about 50 percent of fresh fruits and 20 percent of fresh vegetables are imported to the United States.

“Today’s announcement of these two new proposed rules will help to meet the challenges of our complex global food supply system,” Hamburg said. “Our success will depend in large part on partnerships across nations, industries and business sectors.”

 “Rather than relying primarily on FDA investigators at the ports to detect and respond to food-safety problems, importers would, for the first time, be held accountable for verifying, in a manner transparent to the FDA, that the food they import is safe,” explained Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. Taylor said the other regulation will “strengthen the rigor” of private audits.

But Ben England, founder of FDAImports.com, a consulting firm, said the new importing rule turns importers into “detectives” for the first time.

Importers would be required to assess a company’s compliance history, conduct a hazard analysis for each imported food and determine, in some cases, whether foreign supplier have observed the manufacturing or handling process to ensure safety plans are being followed, he said.

Trade associations will be spending the next several months picking through the new provisions to see how they fit together and whether the rules will work in the real world.

The Foreign Supplier Verification Program and third-party accreditation rules are subject to a 120-day comment period and FDA is extending the comment period by 60 days for the produce safety and preventive controls, Taylor said, so importers and U.S. food companies can look at the food-safety changes as an integrated system.