In a country full of differences, common ground

By: Michael Taylor, Howard Sklamberg and Camille Brewer

We are headed to a meeting in Delhi. Through our taxi windows a vibrant India swirls around us: green and yellow motorized rickshaws and Vespas dart through the crowded city streets, zipping around buses, trucks and the occasional courageous pedestrian. It looks and feels like no city in the United States.

Michael Taylor

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

We are struck by how different it all seems, with many manifestations of traditional Indian lifestyle and culture — saris and turbans worn by many women and men, cattle and monkeys in the streets, and street food of all kinds — mixing with advanced urban infrastructure, intense commercial activity, and Western brand names all around.

We’ve come to this amazing country to discuss with government officials and industry leaders some important changes to our food safety system that will  affect food exports from here to the United States. But we are also here to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of India, “intended to develop opportunities for cooperative engagement in regulatory, scientific, and technical matters and public health protection that are related to…food products.” It admittedly sounds like a bit of legalese, but what it means is that it’s critical that our two nations work together on food safety issues.

Howard Sklamberg

Howard Sklamberg, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy

Why? Well, India is the 7th largest supplier of food to the United States. The great amount of Indian food products that wind up on the dinner tables of Americans every night — including shrimp, spices, and rice — reflects the increasing globalization of our own country’s food supply, 15 percent of which consists of foreign products. Many of these goods come from any one of India’s 29 states, produced by thousands of different companies.

The signing of this MOU with the Export Inspection Council of India is the next step in enhancing our regulatory cooperation with this nation of 1.2 billion people. Last year, while here, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., signed a similar arrangement between FDA and the Indian Department of Health and Family Welfare, a Statement of Intent focused on medical and cosmetic product safety.

And while these documents serve as important, even historic, markers of our nations’ shared commitment to quality drug and food products, we’ve also discovered we have a lot in common with those we’ve met on our journey — which is taking us from the stalls of nut and spice vendors in Old Delhi to a shrimp processing facility in a remote part of Andhra Pradesh.

Camille Brewer

Camille Brewer, M.S., R.D., Director of International Affairs at FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

We had a lot of information to share on this trip. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama in 2011, mandates a food safety system that is preventive rather than reactive, and in which foreign food producers are held to the same safety standards as our domestic farmers and food companies. Under FSMA’s new import safety system, we will continue targeted border checks, but the new system makes importers in the U.S. accountable to FDA for verifying that their foreign suppliers are using methods to prevent food safety problems that provide the same level of public health protection as those used by their U.S. counterparts.

Under FSMA, this new accountability for importers will be backed up by more overseas inspections by FDA, and, crucial for the purposes of this trip, more active partnership with our foreign government counterparts. We need it to strengthen assurances of food safety and capitalize efficiently on the efforts of all participants in what is becoming a truly global food safety system. FSMA is a game changer for food safety and for our food safety partners around the world, and we wondered how our talk about its implementation would be received.

But the Indians are no strangers to sweeping change to improve food safety.

India Shrimp Plant

FDA’s Howard Sklamberg (left) and Michael Taylor (center) tour Waterbase Ltd, a shrimp processing plant and farm in Nellore, India.

Our counterparts, known as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), are also undergoing a significant regulatory overhaul, known as the Foods Safety and Standards Act. Passed in 2006, it was the law that actually created FSSAI. At its core, the Act seeks to ensure that India’s food industry is adhering to international, science-based standards for food safety. Not unlike FSMA, this law poses many challenges in terms of how it can be successfully implemented, with both laws mandating comprehensive change, including marked increases in authority that require new resources to implement.

India MOU signing

FDA’s Howard Sklamberg (left) and Michael Taylor (center) sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of India

Although we don’t know most of the 22 official languages spoken here, we nonetheless realized after meeting with FSSAI that we “speak the same language” in terms of our food safety challenges and solutions. The FSSAI leaders conveyed real concern about protecting the Indian consumers they serve and, like us, they understand that in an increasingly global world, you can’t “go it alone” when it comes to food safety. Commissioner Hamburg, speaking of the global drug supply and how to make it safer, once described the need for a “coalition of regulators.” That same need exists for the world’s food supply.

We left our meeting with FSSAI assured that we are on the same page with our Indian colleagues about our food safety goals, as well as the amount of work — and collaboration — needed to achieve them.

The sounds and sights of Delhi and D.C. are certainly different. But with our MOU signed, we look forward to building our partnership with India, recognizing that sometimes the most fruitful relationships result when people with diverse perspectives come together to find common ground.

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

Howard Sklamberg is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Global Regulatory Operations and Policy

Camille Brewer, M.S., R.D., is Director of International Affairs at FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine.