By: Michael R. Taylor
As we begin 2016, it’s a good time to reflect on the extraordinary engagement we’ve had on food safety with the food-producing community and its continuing impact as we move forward to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
What we learned on those trips made a huge impression, one that ultimately shaped more than just the rules. It had a profound effect on our understanding of the diverse global community of food producers, and opened our eyes to the food safety imperative that guides them.
More recently, we retraced our steps this November and December, making those journeys again to discuss the five FSMA rules that became final this fall — establishing preventive controls for human and animal food, setting produce safety standards, and strengthening oversight of imported foods.
First, some background. We had been traveling to farms since 2009, well before FSMA was signed into law in 2011, listening to and learning from farmers. The visits in 2013 were particularly important because FSMA had become law by then and we had specific proposals to discuss.
In the Pacific Northwest and New England, we focused on issues as different as the climate and geography of those regions. Growers who created lush farmland in the high desert regions of Idaho, Oregon and Washington using canal-fed irrigation systems were chiefly concerned about the agricultural water standards. In Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire, discussions centered on the impact of FDA’s plans on the local food movement and on farmers’ efforts to innovate and diversify.
There was a common theme, however: Growers have been understandably concerned about where we’re headed with these food safety regulations and how they will affect farms, especially those that have been in families for generations. So in 2013, with specifics on the table, there were some tough conversations about the merits of our proposals – and how they could be improved. In Europe, our discussions were primarily with our foreign regulatory counterparts, but also reflected uneasiness about the FSMA rules, particularly their impact on foreign trade.
The bottom line is that through these trips, our eyes were indeed opened to some realities. It became clear that we’d need to make changes for the regulations to work for the food industry while still protecting public health.
Fast forward to 2015. We saw familiar faces in our return to the Pacific Northwest and New England for public meetings in Portland, Oregon, on December 1, and in Brattleboro, Vermont, on December 14. These are people who were frank about their reservations and then rolled up their sleeves to work with us on finding solutions. And we did find solutions, building flexibility into the rules that give food producers and importers options and alternatives that still meet important safety criteria.
And in Europe, too, the conversation has turned to next steps. In early December we returned to Brussels and again met with our European Union regulatory counterparts. Europe has similar overarching food safety principles as the U.S. and the leaders we met want to leverage their resources and avoid duplication of effort. And we are looking into that now, beginning by comparing the public health protections in the European standards with those built into the FSMA rules.
The reception was enormously positive in all three places. We’re in a good place with the FSMA rules. Five of the seven rules we proposed have now been finalized, and we intend to publish final regulations on sanitary transportation and intentional adulteration in the spring. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request for FSMA implementation was close to fully funded, with FDA set to receive $104.5 million of the $109.5 million requested. This critical funding will enable us to maintain our momentum toward timely, comprehensive implementation.
We at FDA are gratified and grateful for what we’ve seen since we first took to the road in 2009. It’s clear that from the smallest farm to the halls of Congress, from local food centers to operations half-way around the world, there is a deep, shared commitment to produce safe food.
Without any doubt, there’s still a lot of hard work to be done, and we know some food producers are still apprehensive about the impact of our regulations on their livelihood. So, we will hit the road again beginning in January for more state and international meetings. We are committed to continuing the conversation and implementing FSMA in a practical way. Working together, we will create the modern food safety system envisioned by FSMA, one that makes every reasonable effort to prevent food safety problems and protect consumers and their families from foodborne illness.
Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine