Fifteen percent of the food Americans eat is imported, including 80 percent of the seafood, and two-thirds of the fruit and vegetables. Our current food safety system can’t even begin to keep tabs on the 24 million shipping containers loaded with food that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates arrived this year from overseas. Increasingly, that food is coming from China, which has suffered a series of scandals involving tainted food.
Enter the Food Safety Modernization Act, which became law earlier this year. One of its aims is to overhaul our 1930’s-era food inspection system, which relies on about 2,000 inspectors to monitor shipments at the ports.
The law is why top FDA officials made the trek to Beijing this week, to the China International Food Safety & Quality Conference + Expo. Chinese producers — or anyone who exports food to the U.S. — will soon have to do more to prove to the companies that import their food that it’s safe.
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s assistant commissioner for foods, told the crowd that the new law marks a fundamental shift from a system that relied on FDA inspectors detecting problems when food imports enter the United States. Rather than rely on port inspectors, the new system will be one “making importers accountable for verifying that their foreign suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place. Importers must manage their supply chains.”
Making that happen, Taylor and other federal officials acknowledge, will be a huge challenge. The FDA now has to set up a system for certifying third-party auditors, whom food producers will have to hire to inspect their goods for approval before it’s shipped to the United States. The audit reports will be available to the FDA, which hasn’t been true of private audits conducted by companies who sell imported food, such as Trader Joe’s and Costco.
The new law calls for 600 on-site audits of foreign food producers this year. Those will have to be done by FDA employees, an FDA spokesman said today, because the rules for the third-party auditors don’t yet exist. The law doubles the number of audits required each year.
The FDA also will have to set standards for farms that produce fruits and vegetables, with the goal of preventing outbreaks of food-borne illness, rather than just detecting them. Making that happen will require collaboration with officials in China and other big food exporting countries, including Mexico and Chile. (The FDA’s Global Pathway to Food Product Safety and Quality, released in July, maps out the long and rocky path ahead in building a global food safety system.)
The Chinese government responded today by announcing the creation of a new Expert Committee for Healthcare, Food, and Cosmetics Safety. But that’s just a small, first step — Bian Zhenjia, a deputy director of the State Food and Drug Administration, acknowledged that China has a long way to go in managing food and drug safety.