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GAO Recommends FDA Shift Import Safety Approach Under FSMA

As Americans become more reliant on imported food — in the past ten years the percent of domestic consumption jumped from 9 to 17 percent — food safety practices overseas are of increasing concern. According to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, there is much work to be done by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration(FDA)  to improve oversight of food from beyond the U.S. border.

Within the mandate of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), GAO recommends that FDA shift its current plans to improve import oversight to evaluate foreign countries’ food safety systems for individual food products, not just their food safety systems as a whole.

“[A]ccording to FDA officials, the agency expects few countries to seek comparability with the United States because, in part, most countries will not meet the FDA requirement that a foreign government’s domestic and export food safety systems be comparable to the U.S. system for food products under FDA’s jurisdiction,” reads the report. “[S]ome countries have robust export certification programs for a specific food product, but their overall food safety systems, including domestic production systems, may not be comparable with those of the United States.”

“With 80 percent of the seafood and more than half of the produce consumed here imported from abroad, it is imperative that we ensure the safety of all food – regardless of where it is produced,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), in response to the report last week. “This report is a good step toward ensuring the safety of our imported food and clearly shows that we have much to do.”

The FDA does not currently inspect foreign food facilities very often or to test very much food as it comes in through U.S. ports. In 2011, FDA inspected 1,002 out of more than 270,000 registered foreign food facilities, according to GAO. That is about a .4 percent rate of inspection for food facilities.

FDA tests a very limited percentage of products coming in. In 2011, FDA reported that it examined about 2.2 percent of all entry lines and specifically performed testing of samples from less than .5 percent of all food entry lines, according to GAO.

Under FSMA, FDA is to establish a “reliable system” that uses third-party audits conducted either by foreign governments or other third parties to help ensure food safety for food destined for the U.S., but this approach, as GAO notes, comes with challenges.

One of those challenges is the reliability and quality of third party audits. As Food Safety News has reported there have been multiple cases where firms received high scores on audits right before causing multistate foodborne illness outbreaks.

“Given the recent reports pointing out concerns with the integrity of third party audits, we must ensure strong implementation of the food safety modernization law for all imported food products,” said DeLauro.

With these issues in mind, GAO recommends instead relying more on “comparability assessments” similar to the equivalency approach employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat and poultry products. The report specifically recommends that FDA specify this comparability approach to hone in food products within countries, instead of looking at the whole system:

“Given the numerous challenges that FDA faces in developing and implementing a third-party accreditation system, the agency could reduce the need for accrediting and using third parties by using comparability assessments. However, FDA will find few countries that have systems comparable with the U.S. system because the agency would require comparability with a foreign government’s entire domestic and export food safety systems for all food products. Consequently, FDA would be unable to leverage the resources of countries with comparable systems for just one food product. FDA can only take full advantage of comparability assessments if it modifies its approach for selecting comparable foreign countries and uses comparability assessments to identify countries that have similar food safety systems for targeted food products, such as seafood.”

According to GAO, FDA neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations.

The report can be found here.

© Food Safety News
  • Barbara Griffith

    That’s one of the reasons I don’t buy food products that are not packed in the US.  If I don’t see the “Product of the USA” stamped on the can I contact the company that distributed  it and ask  what country it came from.  So far all of the companies I have contacted have assured me the product is USA grown and packed. There is enough problems with recalls from US companies let alone having to deal with some company in China.