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New proposed rules for imported food

Photo: Martyn Wright via Flickr CC

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from content written by Amy Kircher, Dr.P.H., acting director and associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota and John T. Hoffman, Col., USA, Ret., National Center for Food Protection and Defense senior research fellow. Learn more about their work on the center’s blog.

Food today is sourced from all over the world. Grapes from Chile, hazelnuts from Oregon, honey from China, you name it – what fills your stomach today often comes from miles away.

The many different food safety standards and complex supply chains can make it challenging to identify and prevent food-related problems. Threats stem from Mother Nature and food system failure from intentional contamination for economic, criminal or terrorist reasons.

To combat the risks from imported food, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed two new rules as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed by President Barack Obama in 2011. These rules aim to raise the food safety standards on imported foods and shift policies from reactive to more proactive solutions.

The first FSMA rule, the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs for Importers of Food for Humans and Animals, aims to hold U.S. importers accountable for the safety of their food from foreign suppliers. Importers will be required to take preventative measures to ensure certain foods are safe for consumption.

The second proposed rule, Accreditation of Third-Party Auditors, would allow FDA-approved foreign government agencies or private companies to accredit third-party auditors. These auditors would inspect and certify foreign food facilities and food under certain circumstances.

But all this begs the following questions: Why propose such rules now? Why hasn’t something similar been in place all along?

The answers to those questions are multilayered. U.S. food distributors have always been responsible for delivering safe and nutritious food products in commercial trade. Additionally, the U.S. has long possessed legal liability mechanisms to hold firms “accountable” under civil law for failures. Good-faith agreements between U.S. buyers and sellers have encouraged suppliers, distributors and producers to meet their contractual obligations where governmental certifications are required.

Unfortunately, recent history shows these to be unreliable public health protections. The modernization act aims to shift the assurance of honest business practices to holding the U.S. importers directly accountable, while the U.S. government will be responsible for compliance and conformance of imported products to U.S. standards.

Further, the law also holds U.S. firms accountable for the safety of their products, regardless of the level of food protection in the sourcing country. This of course complicates governmental established “equivalencies” as practiced in the past with many nations.

These new rules are critical to ensuring the safety of food that comes to our dinner tables and the FDA’s move to no longer react, but instead proactively prevent food safety concerns should be commended.

As both rules are opened up for public comment for the next 120 days, it is critical that food and agriculture professionals from both the public and private sector review and provide their commentary to ensure the rules will work to improve food safety. Despite some of the challenges they might pose in the short-term, the new rules are a step in the right direction.

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