Getting Importers’ Pulse About Food Safety Plans

By: Michael R. Taylor

My team and I took to the road again recently to reach out to the people who will be most affected by the food safety rules that FDA has proposed this year.

We traveled to Long Beach, Calif. – one of the world’s busiest ports – on Oct. 22 and 23 for a public meeting on the two rules that FDA proposed in July to help prevent contaminated foods from ever reaching U.S. ports. These rules – Foreign Supplier Verification Programs and Accreditation of Third-Party Auditors – would make importers more accountable for food safety and would strengthen our ability to monitor foreign food producers.

Members of the import community and food industry attended a public meeting on proposed rules designed to keep imported foods safe.

Earlier this fall, we had our first public meeting on the proposed import rules in Washington, D.C., that was attended by a diverse audience, including consumer and public policy representatives. In Long Beach, the audience was predominantly members of the import community and food industry around the world – including public and private officials from Japan, Thailand, Mexico, Canada and Barbados. Global impact was a thread that wove through all the discussions.

We were very pleased to have with us Sandra Schubert, undersecretary for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, who emphasized the importance of these rules to a large importing and exporting state like California. Across the country, the states will play a very important role in making the food-safety rules a reality.

We learned how the complexity of the global food supply chain could make implementation a challenge. For example, the owners of specialty food stores may have a comparatively small volume of food, but they use many different suppliers around the world. (One Italian foods retailer said that he uses 38 different suppliers in Italy.) They are concerned about the difficulty of requiring all of their small-scale suppliers to verify that the foods are produced in a manner consistent with U.S. standards.

Their complaint is similar to those voiced by small farmers facing a proposed rule that would create new safety standards for the produce industry. They too are afraid of being overwhelmed by logistics and expenses that could put them out of business. As with the produce rule, there are exemptions for small businesses and suppliers. However, some of the specialty importers feel that those exemptions should be expanded.

I was impressed that many of those who spoke at the meetings are thinking ahead to the nuts and bolts of implementation. They asked, however, how we will keep the playing field level – holding all importers and exporters to the same standards. They’ll be at a financial disadvantage if they’re following the rules and others aren’t.

We’ll consider that, and we’ll keep talking. There is clearly no “one size fits all” solution. We want to meet our safety goals with practical, feasible regulations that will work across the wide diversity of food operations.

From Long Beach we drove north to Bakersfield, where we met with growers to discuss the proposed produce regulations. These farmers produce an incredible diversity of crops, including citrus fruits, table grapes, almonds, carrots, leafy greens, green peppers and many more.

We learned a lot in this visit to California. Everything that we heard will be carefully considered as we work on the final version of these rules.

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

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