Improving the Safety of Imported Foods Through Partnerships

By: Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Camille Brewer, M.S., R.D., and Donald Prater, D.V.M.

Susan Mayne

Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

At FDA, we recognize that the partnerships we build with other nations are key to our success in giving American consumers confidence in the safety of the foods they choose to serve their families.

In passing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Congress provided FDA with new authorities to help ensure that domestic food is as safe as possible and that imported food meets U.S. food safety standards. These new authorities to enhance the safety of imported foods take into account a variety of food safety partnerships, including several that FDA has had in place for years.

FDA recently held a two-day public hearing in which we received input from domestic and international food safety experts on how we can build on these strategic partnerships. The safety of imported foods is of great interest to all of us and of utmost concern to the American public. About 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including nearly 50 percent of fresh fruit, 20 percent of fresh vegetables, and 80 percent of seafood. Those imports to the United States come from more than 200 countries and about 125,000 firms.

Camille Brewer

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

What we took away from this hearing, a call to action that will guide us going forward, was a clear message from experts: There are a range of partnership tools that can enhance the safety of imported foods – from capacity building, to credible third party audits and certifications, to sophisticated forms of regulatory cooperation – and each should be used in a way that ensures it is appropriate for its intended purpose.

Countries that export food to the U.S. represent a continuum of food safety capacities and capabilities, and for that reason, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to partnerships. Experts shared their experiences on how we can work with trading partners that need help in building their food safety systems, which, in turn, can help improve the safety of food imported into this country. Attendees discussed how capacity-building programs can be implemented, and how we can make these programs accessible and useful to various regions in the world.

At the other end of the spectrum: How does FDA leverage the knowledge and best practices of countries that have robust food safety systems, and that we have officially recognized as providing a comparable level of public health protection? So far, FDA has completed official recognition with three such countries – New Zealand, Canada and, just this week, Australia.

Don Prater

Donald Prater, D.V.M., Acting Assistant Commissioner for Food Safety Integration in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine

Imported foods must be produced in a way that provides the same level of public health protection as that required of domestic food producers. Some of the questions we considered included: How will it be decided that a measure or procedure used in lieu of an FDA requirement provides the same health protection? How are countries ensuring parity in audits, inspections, verification, and overall oversight?

We also discussed whether, and how, federal agencies might leverage activities and resources with the private sector. How can we consider the role of private entities, such as companies that audit against various private food safety standards, in our oversight of imports?  And we considered the value of export control programs that are specific to certain commodities in terms of risk-based surveillance and planning.

The bottom line? We can use a variety of approaches to enhance the safety of imported food.

Overall, the hearing provided us with a rich tapestry of ideas, opportunities, and challenges that FDA will consider as we enhance our partnership activities. The key is understanding that one size doesn’t fit all.

Click here for the hearing webcast, transcript and additional background. 

Click here for ‘A Conversation with Donald Prater’ on advancing the safety of imported food.

Susan Mayne, Ph.D., is Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

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

Donald Prater, D.V.M., is Acting Assistant Commissioner for Food Safety Integration in FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine

Mexico and the U.S.: Progress on Food Safety Partnerships

By: Michael R. Taylor

En Español

Spring may be on the way, but it’s still winter weather in most areas of the country. If you are enjoying fresh avocados, berries or grapes, there is a good chance they came from Mexico. In fact, about two-thirds of the fresh produce imported into the United States comes from our neighbor to the south.

Food safety meeting attendees, Tubac, Arizona

Food Safety Meeting attendees, from left to right:
Samir Assar, Director, Produce Safety Staff
Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, Executive Director, Center for Produce Safety – UC Davis
Lance Jungmeyer, President, Fresh Produce Association of the Americas
Hugo Fragoso Sanchez, General Director of Food Safety for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, SENASICA
Walter Ram, Vice President of Food Safety, The Giumarra Companies
Mike Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

Ensuring the safety of imported produce is a major focus of FDA’s food safety strategy. That is why I am in Tubac, Arizona to meet with Mexican government officials and producers of fresh fruits and vegetables from both sides of the border. The meeting is sponsored by the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and the Center for Produce Safety in Davis, California – two organizations that take food safety very seriously.

There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings like this to move the needle forward on food safety. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), FDA is developing standards for produce safety that, when implemented, will raise the food safety bar for produce sold in the U.S., whether grown here or in other countries. However, we also have to focus on how the new standards can be effectively and efficiently implemented. How will government and industry – both in the U.S. and abroad – operate under the new requirements? How can we take best advantage of our collective efforts to understand and prevent foodborne hazards and verify that applicable standards have been met? That, after all, is where the rubber meets the road.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we do know we can’t do it alone. I’m joined in Tubac by Samir Assar, who heads FDA’s Produce Safety Team, Dominic Veneziano, who directs our import operations; and Bruce Ross, deputy director of FDA’s Latin America office. And we are sharing the podium with Hugo Fragoso Sanchez from SENASICA and Mario Alanis Garza from COFEPRIS – the two Mexican agencies with which we have long worked closely on food safety.

Historically, our government-to-government collaboration has come mostly in response to outbreaks, import alerts and other incidents. Now, we are focused on work we can do together to better understand potential foodborne hazards and take risk-based steps to prevent or minimize them. This means building partnerships to implement FSMA in the United States and at our common border, as well as collaborating with Mexico to support its food safety modernization initiatives.

Food safety partnerships – at the U.S.-Mexico border and across the food system – must, of course, extend well beyond government. The food safety practices of growers and processors, coupled with private sector supply-chain management, are what make food safe. Government establishes the common base of standards and provides a measure of public accountability for food safety, but verification that standards are being met is a joint public-private effort.

So, we are taking advantage of the Tubac meeting to talk to members of the produce industry about how public and private verification efforts can mesh. Our goal is simple: We want to provide the high levels of assurance about the safety of produce and other food that FSMA calls for and consumers expect. And, in a world of finite resources, we can do that only by relying, where possible, on others to complement our own efforts, and by avoiding duplication.

The next step in building our partnership with Mexico is a three-day meeting in late March with our SENASICA and COFEPRIS colleagues that we will be hosting at our Silver Spring, MD, headquarters. That discussion will build on past collaborative efforts on training, laboratory coordination, risk assessment and outbreak response, but it will be looking ahead to how we can build partnerships for the prevention of food safety problems. After the meeting, we will also be engaging our private stakeholders – industry, consumers, and academia – in this dialogue.

“Partnership” is an easy word to say, but making it real is hard work. We have to learn, continuously, about and from each other; and we have to deal with hard issues in order to expand and align our capacities, share data and information across both public and public-private lines, and build the trust that is the basis for mutual reliance. Some of this will be hard, but we wouldn’t be in Tubac if we didn’t think it were possible – and if we didn’t know active partnership is essential to achieving the food safety goals we all share.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

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