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New Food Import Safety Rules Would Mean a Bigger Burden for Suppliers

Oct 19, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP American companies that import foods would have to certify that their foreign suppliers meet US safety standards under new food safety rules proposed by the White House.  While the new food safety program would increase Food & Drug Administration (FDA) inspections of imported foods, most of the responsibility for preventing tainted foods from coming into the country would fall on the American companies that sell imported products.

The safety of imported foods has received scrutiny this year because of a number of food poisoning outbreaks and recalls that involved foods from China.  Earlier this year, several pets in the US died after eating food that contained an ingredient from China that was laced with a poisonous chemical.  In July, the FDA announced that it would be cracking down on imports of Chinese seafood because of concerns that it might contain chemicals banned in the US.   The FDA banned imports of farm-raised catfish, shrimp and other seafood unless their suppliers could prove that they were free of contamination.

The FDA’s record of policing imported foods has also come under fire in recent months.  During a congressional hearing in July, investigators testified that FDA personnel charged with reviewing imports at US ports were completely overwhelmed.   It was reported that most reviewers were each responsible for tracking 600 food shipments and 300 medical device shipments each day.  Reviewers at FDA labs fared no better.   In the San Francisco testing lab, an FDA staffer has only 30 seconds to review each shipment of imports as they flashed by on a computer screen, investigators told congress.   The Bush Administration claims that the new proposal’s approach to food safety would reduce some of the strain on the FDA.  

The rash of safety scares over imported foods has given moves toward new reforms momentum.   Even food manufacturers and importers are supportive of the calls for change.  In fact, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) an industry trade group, has proposed several other changes to the US food safety systems, including giving the FDA more money and authority to police imported foods.  The GMA has also proposed that food companies take on more responsibility for insuring imports are safe, and has suggested an incentive system that would award food processors who consistently meet standards.  For instance, a food company whose imports meet inspection standards could be eligible for faster processing at US ports.  The GMA also favors a more “risk based” approach to food import inspections which would allow the FDA to focus more on countries and suppliers that are known to have safety issues.

However, while everyone agrees that there is a need to reform the food safety system, no one can agree how to pay for it.  The GMA believes that the cost for the programs should be spread across all US taxpayers.   But Democrats in Congress want food companies to pay for much of the costs of a new system through increased user fees.  

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