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Food Safety Regulations Will Change Industry, Brackett Says

Opinion

(This article by Tom Karst, national editor of The Packer, was first published Aug. 26, 2014, and is reposted here with permission.)

The U.S. Food and Drug and Administration’s new food safety regulations aren’t the only changes facing fresh produce marketers, but the coming rules likely will be the most far-reaching, Robert Brackett believes.

In a talk called, “Food Safety Issues on the Horizon: Thinking Differently,” Brackett, a former FDA official and now vice president and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, spoke to attendees of the U.S. Apple Association’s Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference on Aug. 22 in Chicago.

Robert Brackett

Besides new food safety legislation and regulation in the U.S. and other countries, Brackett identified macro changes that include globalization of food trade and production, a rising world population, climate change, diminished land availability, urbanization, global economic shifts and instant communication.

The fallout from these changes will bring increased imports of food, a need for standardized regulations between countries, more biotechnology, higher food prices and increased chances of fraud, he said.

Brackett said economic growth in developing countries will fuel rising consumer expectations and stronger demand for fruits and vegetables, meat and processed foods.

Changes in developed countries, including the U.S., include aging populations, increased reliance on medicine and the emergence of chronic conditions that could lead to health issues such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, he said. This means a substantial part of the U.S. population is at risk from problems with the safety of the food supply.

“At least 20 percent to 25 percent of the population is at risk and should watch what is in their foods,” he said. At-risk populations include the very young, the very old, those taking medicines and others who may be allergic to food.

Brackett said that 17 percent of the U.S. population is 60 or older, and 4 percent of the population is 80 years old or older. Nearly two-thirds of the population is overweight, and 44 percent of Americans are taking one or more prescription medicines.

New tools online

New epidemiological tools will help identify pathogens, and scientists will be able to trace foodborne illness outbreaks easier, he said.

“We will have tools to allow FDA and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to find out where outbreaks occur much more accurately and sooner than they have in the past,” he said.

Brackett said researchers will have new molecular testing tools, which will allow better attribution of where problems exist. Next-generation genome sequencing will allow scientists to take a bacterium sample and complete the sequence of the whole genome quickly and cheaply. That type of test used to take as long as a year, but now Brackett says it costs about $100 and several tests can be completed in a day.

The technology will allows scientists, for example, to isolate the place on a packing line where a food safety problem was introduced, he said.

“It is a level of resolution we have never had before on foodborne pathogens,” he said. In the future, handheld equipment for genome sequencing of pathogens may be common, he added.

Another reality of today’s world is consumer engagement in social media, Brackett said.

Whereas the public response to Alar on apples was significant in 1989, a similar event in 2014 would be much more magnified because of social media, he said.

“The response would be in hours, not days or months,” he said.

Misinformation could also be multiplied by false reports on social media, he said.

Brackett also noted the growth of private-label foods by retailers, Brackett said. Those situations will cause suppliers and retailers to look at mutually dependent partnership arrangements, he said. “If there is a foodborne illness issue, you both could go down,” he said.

Private audit standards higher than government standards are also continuing to be imposed on suppliers, he said. The Global Food Safety Initiative aims for a harmonized set of standards across the globe, he said, though acceptance of that standard is not universal.

Food safety systems are under review and change is happening not only in the U.S., but also in China, New Zealand and Canada.

Food safety expectations

With the Food Safety Modernization Act, Brackett said FDA is supposed to have a partnership with the industry.

The new regulations will have a broad prevention mandate and accountability for food suppliers, he said.

“You have to be accountable to FDA inspections that you have prevented something from happening,” he noted.

Imports will have an oversight that is much stricter than in the past.

“Something that was always stated — farm-to-table food safety — it truly is farm-to-table food safety responsibility because we will have FDA investigators on the farm,” Brackett said.

Brackett said “preventive controls” regulations require firms such as fresh-cut apple processors to employ good manufacturing practices.

“I call it HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) on steroids because these preventive controls are much broader than you have had in the past,” he said.

Eventually, the preventive control regulation may require supplier verification for domestic suppliers, just as FDA will require for import suppliers.

The produce safety rule — applicable to apple growers — will address firms that grow , harvest, pack and hold produce. The regulations will include requirements about water quality, sanitation of equipment, standards for soil amendments and risks posed by specific processes and commodities, he said.

Brackett said the produce safety rule will make it much more difficult for companies which may grow a variety of commodities.

The one part of food safety regulations with the most teeth, Brackett said, is records access for investigators. Certain records must be available to government investigators upon request, he said.

The rules under the Foreign Supplier Verification Program will have a big effect on the industry, he said. The regulation will put the responsibility on importers to confirm that fresh produce imports are grown with the same safety standards as in the U.S.

“The importer of record must prove that to investigators,” he said.

FDA will employ a computer program to help the agency decide which categories of imported food will receive the most scrutiny, he said.

Implications for fresh produce suppliers are several, Brackett said. Companies must develop food safety plans and be able to prove to FDA that procedures are in place to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

The industry will be asked to get ahead of possible food safety issues, to figure out what could go wrong and prevent it from occurring.

“Ultimately, hopefully there will be safer food and more confidence in the regulatory system and the food industry,” Brackett said.

Brackett said private audit standards will become more important. After he spoke, one apple shipper asked if the number of third-party audits could be reduced through harmonization.

“It’s moving that way, but I think it will be quite some time before we get a harmonized audit system,” Brackett said.

© Food Safety News
  • Mark

    Mr. Brackett is quoted as saying that the importer of record will need to prove to FDA investigators that imported produce is grown with the same safety standards as in the US. While true that imports and importers will be subject, and quite correctly, to increased scrutiny…this responsibility will not fall on the importer of record but instead upon the “FSMA importer” ( my terminology ).
    The Importer Of Record ( IOR ) is a customs concept and, as noted in FDA FSVP guidance, in a great many circumstances the IOR is merely a 3rd party service provider like a customs broker or express courrier. Such entities are , by definition, 3rd parties and not the actual principals in the import transactions and as such they obviously lack the upstream supply chain visibility and leverage to be held accountable for product safety.
    FSMA Title III sec. 301 defines the “FSMA importer” as the U.S. owner or U.S. consignee at time of entry ( as opposed to time of release ) and in the absence of such a U.S. owner/consignee at time of entry the foreign food manufacturer’s U.S. agent ( which at this point appears to be the U.S. agent from Foreign Food Facility Registration ) may be deemed as being the importer for purposes of FSMA……and in a great many cases none of these supply chain entities will be the importer of record. Going a step further, while CBP allows for non-residents to operate as the importer of record ( Canadian, Mexican food processors for example selling their products on a delivered basis in the USA within a NAFTA context to U.S. retailers ) FSMA precludes non-residents…..as far as FSMA is concerned the importer is and can only be a U.S. entity which means there are entities in the import supply chain who will suddenly discover that they are the importer with all the regulaotry obligations that go along with it. In turn America’s trading partners have/will impose similar requirements on American interests. Canada, for example, is moving towards a model requiring the licensing of all stakeholders engaged in the import, export or interprovincial sale of food with residency likely being a requirement for food importers…..meaning US fresh produce companies with long track records of supply nutritious and perfectly safe food to Canadian retailers through effective and cost efficient supply chains may soon find they will need to set up shop in Canada or otherwise be hit with new market access costs.
    These trade nuances will likely mean precious little to food safety science folks, however, from a supply chain management and corporate risk perspective the difference in importer definition between CBP and FDA will require significant changes which one hopes will actually lead to more beneficial food safety outcomes….

  • J T

    It wont be Farm-to-TABLE. Until they start heavily policing what goes on in grocery stores and other retail level sales, they will only scratch the surface. All of these grocery outlets make their suppliers jump through all sorts of food safety hoops, but then the stores themselves consistently drop the ball. They store their deliveries at unsafe temperatures, like the recent Sysco revelations revealed. Each individual store allows hundreds or thousands of unwashed hands to touch their displayed produce every single day. Many of those hands were just handling raw meat products or were in somebody’s nose or petting an animal or touching dirty door handles. At the checkout counter, the conveyor belt is heavily contaminated from the extremely unsafe leaking packages of raw meats and chicken from prior customers. At least the conveyor belts OCCASIONALLY get cleaned at most stores, while the shopping carts are completely exempted from any sort of sanitation program.

  • J T

    It wont be Farm-to-TABLE. Until they start heavily policing what goes on in grocery stores and other retail level sales, they will only scratch the surface. All of these grocery outlets make their suppliers jump through all sorts of food safety hoops, but then the stores themselves consistently drop the ball. They store their deliveries at unsafe temperatures, like the recent Sysco revelations revealed. Each individual store allows hundreds or thousands of unwashed hands to touch their displayed produce every single day. Many of those hands were just handling raw meat products or were in somebody’s nose or petting an animal or touching dirty door handles. At the checkout counter, the conveyor belt is heavily contaminated from the extremely unsafe leaking packages of raw meats and chicken from prior customers. At least the conveyor belts OCCASIONALLY get cleaned at most stores, while the shopping carts are completely exempted from any sort of sanitation program.