This week, for the first time, FDA and New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries recognized each other’s food safety systems as providing a comparable degree of food safety assurance at a signing ceremony at the Embassy of New Zealand in Washington, D.C.
One practical result of this arrangement is enhanced information exchanges to avoid duplication of efforts: for example, if the two food-exporting countries decide that their food safety programs and practices provide a comparable level of food safety assurance, they can take this into account as appropriate in determining the type and frequency of inspections to conduct of foreign manufacturing establishments and of imported food shipments.
This means the comparable nations can concentrate more resources, including inspections, on foods that present a greater risk, providing for improved food safety overall.
The arrangement with New Zealand is part of an overall strategy for strengthening the global food safety net through closer collaboration with regulators around the world, highlighted in FDA’s report “Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality.”
FDA recognizes that, while import examinations are an important tool in helping to ensure that imported foods are safe, we can’t examine every food headed for or arriving at our borders. Instead we make risk-based decisions about which shipments need the least and the most scrutiny at the border. Under the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), FDA is mandated to expand its import tool kit beyond FDA’s border screening to include stronger importer accountability for verifying the safety of food imports, a much strengthened system of private audits, more FDA inspections overseas, and importantly, greater collaboration with foreign regulatory authorities.
In the past, New Zealand and the U.S. had certain commodity-specific arrangements in place such as ones for seafood and dry dairy products. A scheduled review of these arrangements coincided with the time FDA was starting to consider ways to expand the global safety net through enhanced cooperation with other nations. Both countries thought: Why not try to expand beyond these products to include every product regulated by FDA and its counterpart in New Zealand?
That was the start of intense work which began in 2010. FDA, working with New Zealand regulators, comparing every facet of each country’s food safety system—the training of inspectors, procedures for identifying and responding to food safety issues, and legal authority, to name a few.
Once we had confidence in the system on paper, we conducted on-site reviews of the implementation of their programs, to give us an understanding of how their programs worked in practice.
Both countries retain the right to conduct inspections of each other’s products as appropriate. But assured about each other’s competency and commitment, both are more likely to focus their resources on higher risks. Importantly, if a problem does occur, each country intends to work cooperatively on follow up.
The process for conducting systems recognition is still being pilot tested with Canada. FDA will continue to update and refine our process as we work through the pilot with Canada. Systems recognition is voluntary and not required in order for a country to export FDA-regulated foods to the U.S., but any country that believes it can meet the very high bar will have the option of seeking recognition. Meanwhile, we will continue working to foster a global food safety net for all.
Deborah M. Autor, J.D., is Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy
Michael R. Taylor, J.D., is Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine