FDA Struggles to Crack Down on Safety of Food Imports

Monday, September 09, 2013

Food kills about 3,000 Americans per year and sickens about 48 million, sending 128,000 to the hospital, and food imported from countries with lax health and safety inspections is a prime suspect. Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has released draft rules to hold food importers accountable for food safety, but consumer advocates say the rules may give importers too much responsibility for policing themselves.

 

The draft regulations are the last major rules required under the Food Safety Modernization Act, a statute passed in 2010 as the first significant reform of federal food safety law since the New Deal. Critics have charged the Obama administration with delaying the rules to avoid Republican attacks at the cost of public safety—and there have been eight multistate outbreaks of sickness linked to imported food since the bill was signed into law.

 

The FDA, however, is able to inspect barely 1% of these food imports, and the cost of hiring the army of inspectors needed to cover the task is more than a budget deficit conscious Congress is willing to consider. As a result, says FDA’s Michael Taylor, “rather than relying almost entirely on FDA’s investigators” the agency would “for the first time…hold accountable” importers “for verifying…that the food they import is safe.”

 

Under the rules, importers would have to ensure that their foreign suppliers comply with FDA safety rules or equivalent local regulations. Industry groups, which the FDA consulted during the drafting process, generally support the rule, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Association of Exporters & Importers.

 

Although consumer advocates were cautiously supportive of the new rules, they also worried that the companies were getting too much discretion over whether to require on-site inspections of the sites where food is grown and processed. Arguing that inspections should be mandatory, Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that without on-site visits, “importers could just rely on paperwork and promises that may or may not reflect conditions on the ground in these facilities.”

 

The FDA’s Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said the agency was trying to be flexible in dealing with a complex food supply. “We envision circumstances in which it would be required to have an on-site audit,” he said. “We are trying to—with these two different options—flesh out different ways of getting there.”

 

So long as the way of getting there doesn’t involve letting the fox guard the chicken coop, the new regulations may have a chance of improving American public health and cutting down on those 3,000 deaths per year.

-Matt Bewig

 

To Learn More:

FDA Seeks New Process to Check Imports (by Justin Bachman, San Francisco Chronicle)

F.D.A. Says Importers Must Audit Food Safety (by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)

FDA Inspects Only 2% of Imported Food (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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