Our Voice: FDA should hold imported foods to domestic safety standards

August 6, 2013 

We take what we eat for granted.

We live in a country with the most robust agricultural production in the world. And while the majority of what we consume is grown and processed here in the United States, we do import about 15 percent of our food supply. Nearly two-thirds of our fresh fruit and vegetables are imported.

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed rules intended to safeguard consumers and put the burden of food safety on the companies doing the importing.

Food safety is critical, and one in six of us falls ill each year from contaminated foods produced here and abroad. An estimated 3,000 people die in the U.S. of food-borne illnesses annually.

The FDA has only been able to inspect 1 percent to 2 percent of the food coming through U.S. ports and borders. And that's not a broad enough sampling to do much good. Putting some of the burden on the importers makes a lot of sense.

Businesses should want to make sure the food they're bringing into the country is safe to eat because they'll be sued if it turns out it isn't.

But the new rules leave some wiggle room regarding on-site inspections of fields and processing plants. Those inspections need to be mandated to make them useful.

The FDA's rules come two years after Congress passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act, major legislation aimed at protecting the public from tainted food imports. The new law is the first major update to food safety in 70 years.

The rules place the same safety standards on imported foods as those domestically produced. It seems odd that they weren't already subjected to those rules. It left an easy path for bad products to slip into our food supply.

Companies here would have to show that their suppliers had safeguards in place, with food tests, audits and reviews of records. on-site inspectors would be subject to FDA approval before they could get to work.

A draft of the rules left it up to the companies' discretion to decide whether to conduct on-site inspections at foreign farms and production facilities.

If that ends up being the final ruling, some food safety advocates worry that the process will be pointless, allowing food importers to police themselves with no oversight.

Large importers like Walmart say they already provide much of the scrutiny proposed. It has a reputation to uphold, and big dollars at stake if people get sick from its products.

Consumer groups say the large companies aren't typically the problem, and that much of the imported food in our country is brought in by smaller businesses.

The proposed rules are subject to a 120-day public comment period. Find more information online at www.fda.gov/fsma. Fruit juices and seafood are exempt from the rules because they are already subject to regulation.

We hope the FDA will adopt final rules that make imported foods as safe as our domestic food supply. It only makes sense.

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