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U.S. Food Safety Agencies, Industry Seek More Import Regulation


Improvements would strengthen one of world’s safest food systems.

Washington -- U.S. food import safety officials and the food industry are proposing to ramp up federal regulation of imported food and ingredients to address the risk that unsafe products could enter the United States.

U.S. agencies charged with overseeing food import safety are expected to forward to President Bush in November recommended actions that food producers, distributors, importers and regulators should take to strengthen food safety.

The recommendations will focus on developing more scientific and analytic tools to allow better identification of potential risks, to monitor the effectiveness of prevention measures and to increase use of information technology for inspection and surveillance.

The recommendations also will aim to reduce the time between detecting and containing a food-borne illness, David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told a House Appropriations subcommittee in September.

The food industry’s largest trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), has unveiled its proposal for more regulation. It reflects awareness among industry leaders that U.S. companies, as imports rise, face increasing challenges to ensure the quality and safety of food sold to U.S. consumers.

The GMA proposal would require all U.S. food importers to adopt a foreign supplier quality assurance program and verify that imported products meet FDA food safety requirements.

GMA President Cal Dooley said industry wants to work with government to strengthen and modernize the U.S. system of regulating the safety of food imports. Working in partnership with government, “industry can apply its vast knowledge and practical experience along the entire supply chain to prevent problems before they arise,” he said.

Some companies, such as retail giant Costco, long ago added their own specifications to the current government regulations, based on consumer expectations for quality and safety, said Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president of food safety and quality.

He said Costco’s food suppliers are located all around the world so that the company can get supplies of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats in any season.

Since 2006, U.S. food safety agencies have increased information sharing –- and thus prevention and intervention efforts -– through an international trade data system maintained by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for ensuring that U.S. imports of meat, poultry and eggs are safe and properly labeled.

It is a “regimented process” of sending inspectors to countries and establishments in those countries to determine if their safety standards are equivalent to those of the United States, FSIS Administrator Alfred Almanza told USINFO.

Thirty-three countries are certified to export meat to the United States, and only certified establishments in those countries can export specific foods to the United States, Almanza said.

"It’s an exciting time for those countries that are eligible to ship to the United States. ... As long as they meet our regulatory requirements, they can expand the number of customers,” he said.

All food coming into the United States is inspected at a port of entry to ensure the contents of the shipment match information contained on the accompanying document. Certain products are inspected a second time for such pathogens as listeria, E. coli and salmonella, and for residues in the food. These include ready-to-eat products, such as packaged salads, and products from a country or establishment with some history of noncompliance with U.S. standards or from countries experiencing an outbreak of a disease.

If a shipment is found to be suspect, a sample of its contents is sent to one of four FSIS laboratories around the country for analysis.

FSIS and FDA, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, also host delegations from trade-partner countries interested in seeing the stages of the food safety system, from farms, to processing and packing plants to food transportation companies, Almanza said.

In addition, U.S. agencies are working closely with state governments to adopt more uniform regulations. FDA also has signed an agreement with the European Food Safety Authority to cooperate on food safety assessments.


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