Border Crossings: Working With Partners to Verify the Safety of Imported Produce

By: Michael R. Taylor

One of the vivid images that sticks with me from my tenure at FDA is of the port of entry at Nogales, Arizona. There, I saw large trucks from Mexico lined up as far as the eye could see, awaiting entry into the United States‎, many loaded full with fresh produce. I was told by our FDA team that, during the busy season, as many as 1,500 produce trucks enter the United States there daily, and Nogales isn’t even the busiest port of entry on the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Michael R. TaylorThat visit to Nogales was in the early phase of our food safety modernization initiative at FDA‎, but it had a lasting effect on me. It drove home the degree of difficulty we would face in fulfilling the produce safety vision embodied in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

With 50 percent of our fresh fruit and 20 percent of our vegetables coming from growers in other countries, the challenge was not only to establish produce safety rules that would be effective and workable across the hugely diverse produce sector, but also to verify with reasonable confidence that those standards are being met consistently, every day, regardless of where the produce is grown.

‎The FSMA produce ‎safety rule is now on the books, but implementation and the task of achieving and verifying compliance is just getting started. We know that success will take an enormous amount of education, training, and technical assistance to support the vast majority of farmers who will want to comply.

It will take a concerted effort by government and industry alike to verify that compliance is happening. And all of that demands active public-private collaboration and partnership to meet high consumer expectations.

‎‎Within the United States, this means working with our state government partners to build state produce safety programs that will provide our primary interface with U.S. growers on all aspects of produce safety. We will also work with growers and their customers to strengthen the reliability of private audits as a source of verification that can complement, but never replace, the essential role of government inspection.

‎But what about those 1,500 truckloads coming into Nogales daily from Mexican farms? How do we verify their compliance?

‎The answer is this: only by using every tool in our import tool kit‎, and, of course, by building partnerships.

‎I’m writing this while en route to Tubac, Arizona, for the annual Spring Policy Summit of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA). FPAA represents those producing and trading fresh produce across the U.S.-Mexico border. For good business reasons, FPAA and its members focus heavily on ensuring the safety of that huge volume of food.

At this meeting, my colleagues and I will be discussing implementation of the foreign supplier verification program (FSVP) final rule, which places new responsibility on importers to ensure the safety of the food they import. This responsibility includes ensuring and verifying that their foreign suppliers use processes and procedures that meet U.S. safety standards. The result is that importers’ private verification efforts will help ensure the public health. At the same time, they are accountable to FDA.

FSVP is the regulatory linchpin of FSMA’s historic paradigm‎ shift for imported food from reaction at the border to accountability for prevention at the point of production. But Congress recognized that FSVP alone is not enough. FSMA also mandates that FDA conduct more foreign inspections and work more closely with foreign governments to ensure the safety of imported food.

‎So‎ also gathering in Tubac are our regulatory colleagues from the two Mexican agencies responsible for produce safety on the farm (SENASICA) and after the produce leaves the farm (COFEPRIS).

In 2014, we formed the US -Mexico Produce Safety Partnership, through which we are collaborating with our Mexican colleagues – much the way we do with our state partners – on education and technical assistance, inspection and compliance, and response to outbreaks. We’ll be reviewing our progress and discussing our challenges in a partnership working group meeting and sharing our government perspectives with FPAA, which has formed its own working group to collaborate with the government effort.‎

‎This degree of collaboration on food safety is unprecedented‎. But it is necessary because neither government nor industry alone can provide the level of verification FSMA envisions and consumers demand.

And it is possible because of the deep alignment of strategic interests ‎on food safety that exists among industry, government and consumers. We all have a huge stake in seeing that modern preventive practices are being used consistently to make produce safe. That is the foundation for real partnership. We all have different roles to play, but we all have the same goal.

‎That’s why we are gathering in Tubac. And, that’s why I’ll be traveling to Mexico City in April with Dr. Stephen Ostroff, my successor at FDA when I leave the agency in June, to work with our Mexican colleagues and the Mexican industry on FSMA implementation. That’s why we’re holding a public meeting in Washington today to discuss import safety with consumer, industry, and foreign stakeholders.

‎And it’s why hundreds of my FDA colleagues are working tirelessly with partners across the food system to prepare for FSMA implementation. I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to work with so many people dedicated to food safety.  I think we are all fortunate that Steve Ostroff and other leaders across the food system have their hands on the helm.

And I am confident that we are on the way to success in fulfilling the FSMA vision, from the farms of Vermont and California to that line of trucks at Nogales.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

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