Five years after Congress passed a landmark law meant to prevent the importation of contaminated food, the Food and Drug Administration on Friday made final new rules that for the first time put the main responsibility on companies for policing the food they import. The rules also include new safety standards for produce grown on American farms. Some take effect in a year.The new rules require importers to show that the food they bring into the United States meets American safety standards. They would do that by hiring third-party auditors to check the safety of the food in foreign facilities, a system that some consumer advocates had cautioned might give companies too much discretion but that federal officials argue is the standard for the food industry and will be brought under the spotlight of federal oversight.“This the first time the food importers have fallen directly under FDA regulation,” said Michael R. Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. He cited the recent outbreak of salmonella in imported cucumbers that killed four Americans and hospitalized more than 150 as a prime example of what the rule is intended to prevent. “We think it’s a big step forward.”The safety of the food supply — foreign and domestic — is a critical public health issue. One in every 6 Americans becomes ill from eating contaminated food each year, according to the FDA. About 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.The produce rule sets standards for growing, harvesting, packing and storing produce on farms in the United States. It includes requirements for water quality, employee health and hygiene, and manure and compost use.
© 2015 New York Times News Service
Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said the rule means that “for the first time, we have nationwide enforceable safety standards for fruits and vegetables consumed raw.”The rules were broadly praised by consumer advocates and industry as a substantial advance in food safety. The American food supply is increasingly globalized. In 2013, the Department of Agriculture estimated that imported food accounted for 19 percent of the U.S. food supply, including 52 percent of the fresh fruits and 22 percent of the fresh vegetables. Given these changes, the old food safety system was outdated, officials said. The FDA tries to keep tabs on imports, but it inspects only 1 to 2 percent of imports at American ports and borders.“These rules represent a lot of compromises,” said David Plunkett, a senior staff lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s food safety program. “But imported food will at least now have someone who is responsible for assuring its safety. The bottom line is the food supply will be safer.”The FDA cannot regulate what happens on foreign farms, but it can require that food importers verify that their foreign suppliers are making and growing food that meets American safety standards. The rules establish a system of third-party auditors, which an importer would hire to inspect a supplier’s facility, for example, or sample or test food made there.Some critics worried that the system would not be rigorous because the companies would hire the auditors. But Taylor said the practice was standard in the food industry. Many large American food companies operate in similar ways, and requiring it for all importers was crucial to keeping the American food supply safe, he said.“Under the new rules, importers will have the obligation to verify they are meeting U.S. standards,” Taylor said. “This is a fundamental paradigm shift from the FDA detecting and responding to problems with imported foods to industry being responsible for preventing them.”
© 2015 New York Times News Service
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