Spurred to action by high-profile recalls of food imports, the Food and Drug Administration announced a strategy for updating its import food safety enforcement activities.
The United States imports about 15% of our overall food supply from more than 200 countries or territories, representing about 125,000 international food facilities and farms.
Those involved in the sales and distribution of imported foods know well the alphabet soup of agencies, programs and processes they must navigate to do their jobs. Advances in technology have encouraged burgeoning growth in food products displayed on the shelves of corner bodegas and national supermarket chains, as well as via e-commerce, and technology can make it safer, too.
The enormous volume and variety of imported food and the complexity of global supply chains make food safety a challenging issue for FDA to address, the agency points out. “Over the past 15 years alone, we’ve seen a trend of rising imported foods. Other countries now supply about 32% of the fresh vegetables, 55% of the fresh fruit and 94% of the seafood that Americans enjoy,” notes FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
“We work hard every day to ensure that the U.S. food supply remains among the safest in the world,” he adds. “The FDA intends to use our modern toolkit by introducing a new, comprehensive,
imported food safety strategy to address these challenges and opportunities.”
The new strategy is designed to meet four goals: preventing food safety problems in the supply chain before it enters the U.S.; detecting and refusing entry of unsafe foods; responding quickly after learning about unsafe foods; and measuring progress to ensure programs are effective and efficient.
To prevent safety problems prior to entry into the U.S., the FDA says it is taking new steps to ensure that imported food meets the same standards as domestically produced food. This includes beefing up the process for handling onsite inspections of food facilities in foreign locations.
The FDA says its strategy now has a more modern focus on tools for risk-informed prioritizing of firms for inspection to fulfill the goals of the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program. VQIP offers importers expedited review and entry of their food based on the safety assurances the audits provide.
The agency also intends to collaborate with foreign governments, standards development organizations and others to remove inefficiency from the process. This includes system recognition arrangements made with New Zealand, Canada and Australia, FDA says. It also is working with the European Union on a mutual assessment program.
“Our decisions will be informed by an increasing amount of data and information from other oversight activities and partners,” Gottlieb explains. To that end, the FDA recently began inspections for the FDA’s Foreign Supplier Verification Programs rule, which covers modified procedures for use by eligible small importers and the importers of food from certain small foreign suppliers.
“By leveraging partnerships between the U.S. and other countries with very strong food safety systems through our systems recognition program, we’re able to prioritize our inspection and border screening activities on foods imported from higher-risk areas,” Gottlieb says.
The FDA also will pursue detecting and refusing unsafe products by updating import screening, sampling, testing and review processes at more than 300 active U.S. ports of entry.
To improve its Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT) program, the FDA adopted an automated import screening tool to identify high-risk food shipments.
PREDICT will incorporate new sources of data from foreign supplier verification programs, voluntary importer incentive programs, accredited third-party auditors, foreign regulatory authorities and domestic supply chain activities.
Gottlieb observes, “By enhancing our access to various data streams, we’ll be better positioned to catch issues with imported foods before they are made available in the U.S. marketplace.”
In spite of the FDA’s best efforts to prevent and stop unsafe food from entering the U.S., it’s impossible for it to completely stop all unsafe food products, he points out. The FDA’s new strategy calls for using data from multiple sources to optimize the physical examination process. This includes developing strategic and targeted surveillance sampling for the products deemed to present the highest risk.
Gottlieb also stresses that the FDA will continue to work closely with state and other partners on improving testing methods for determining the admissibility of food imports. This includes improving the efficiency of agency response to food safety incidents by expanding use of the FDA’s mandatory recall authority, import alerts and sharing information with regulatory partners.