WASHINGTON (AP) — Chances are that about 15 percent of the
food Americans eat — more if a consumer’s diet includes lots of fruits,
vegetables and cheese — comes from abroad, and the government is taking steps to
make it safer.
New rules proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would
make U.S. food importers responsible for ensuring that their suppliers are
handling and processing food safely.
Imported fruit and cheese has been responsible for many
recent outbreaks, including 153 recent Hepatitis A illnesses linked to a frozen
berry mix sold at Costco, as well as four deaths last year that were linked to
listeria in Italian cheese.
Imported fruits or vegetables also are the top suspect in an
ongoing outbreak of cyclosporiasis, a gastrointestinal infection that has so far
sickened 321 people in 13 states.
Other illnesses in the last several years have been linked
to imported papayas, mangoes and nuts and spices used as ingredients. An
estimated 3,000 people die from food-related illnesses every year.
The proposed rules, required by a sweeping food safety law
passed by Congress in 2010, are meant to establish better checks on what long
has been a scattershot effort to guard against unsafe food imported from more
than 150 countries. Only around 2 percent of that food is inspected by the
government at ports and borders.
The guidelines would require U.S. food importers to verify
that the foreign companies they are importing from are achieving the same levels
of food safety required in this country. The government estimates that the
rules, which also would improve audits of food facilities abroad, eventually
could cost the food industry up to $472 million annually.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg used the frozen berry
illnesses, linked to pomegranate seeds from Turkey, as an example of an outbreak
that could have been prevented if the new rules were in place. She said it
illustrates the “growing complexity of the food supply.”
FDA investigators had to look at berries from several
different countries that were included in the mix before they zeroed in on the
Turkish seeds as the probable source of the illnesses.
Hamburg and other FDA officials said the rules show a major
shift in thinking in the way the government works to keep food safe.
Like rules for domestic farmers and food companies released
earlier this year, the idea is to make businesses more responsible for the
safety of the food they are selling or importing by proving they are using good
food safety practices.
They might do that by documenting basic information about
their suppliers’ cleanliness, testing foods or acquiring food safety audits. If
they fail to verify the food is safe, the FDA could stop shipments of their
Currently, the government does little to ensure that
companies are trying to prevent food safety problems but generally waits and
responds to outbreaks after they happen.
Requiring better prevention was the intent when Congress
passed the bill. But since then, the law has run into several obstacles,
including FDA delays in issuing the rules, a lack of congressional funding and
increasing opposition from some rural members of Congress who represent worried
A farm bill passed in the House included an amendment
sponsored by Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., that would delay all of the food safety
rules. Farmers and importers have expressed concern that the rules will require
too much time, cost and paperwork.
FDA regulators said the new rules are necessary as the food
system becomes more complex and more global. Food often stops in several
locations and passes through many different hands in a matter of days before it
hits grocery shelves.
And a lack of funding has given the FDA little oversight
over what is being produced. The agency inspects most food companies in the U.S.
only every five to 10 years, and it does even fewer inspections abroad.
The food safety law requires the agency to step up those
foreign inspections, which jumped from 300 facilities in 2010 to 1,300 last
year, according to the FDA.
But that still is a just a fraction of the companies that
import to the U.S., and limited resources may mean the number of inspections
won’t continue to increase.
The import safety proposal doesn’t include oversight for
meat, which is mostly produced domestically and is regulated by the Agriculture
Department, or seafood, which already is subject to regulations on import
safety. About 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported.
The rules also would exempt smaller importers that have less
than $500,000 in sales annually.
The domestic food safety rules proposed in January would
require U.S. farms and food processors to take new precautions against
contamination such as making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is
clean and livestock stay out of fields.
Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to
the government to show they are keeping their operations clean.
The food industry, aware of the toll major outbreaks can
have on sales, has been supportive of the FDA food safety proposals and worked
with Congress to pass the law three years ago.
A statement from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the
industry’s main trade group, said the rules “serve as a role model for what can
be achieved when the private and public sectors work together to achieve a
Food companies have stopped short of pitching into pay for
the regulations, however. In addition to the costs the industry already will
incur from the requirements, the FDA and some lawmakers would like to collect
user fees from the industry for putting the rule in place.
Hamburg said that the FDA is talking to companies about that
The FDA will take comments on both the domestic and foreign
food safety proposals in the next several months and then plans to issue final
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