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