Enough went into the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to make the food industry queasy, but the new law’s limited reliance on third-party auditors is still enough to make consumer advocates feel about the same way — at least for a while.
The FSMA’s final rule on Accredited Third-Party Certification means the private auditors that the food industry has used for decades are now playing an official role in global food safety. To be sure their role is limited.
According to FDA, third-party certifications may be used by importers only to establish eligibility for participation in the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP), or when requested by FDA to prevent potentially harmful food from reaching U.S. consumers.
“An auditor is not an inspector and an audit is not an inspection,” explained Sandra Eskin, food safety director for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “FSMA does not direct FDA to outsource its inspection or enforcement authority to private entities.”
Eskin’s comments came during an FDA outreach session when the rule was still a draft. FSMA marks the first time, she noted, that FDA “has directed as part of its food import safety oversight to rely on the findings and determinations of an approved list of private or third-party auditors.”
Around the time Congress was passing the FSMA, private auditors gave rosy grades to a Georgia peanut processing plant and cantaloupe growers in Colorado. In short order both the processor and grower were involved in two of the deadliest outbreaks of foodborne disease so far in the 21st century.
Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for the Consumers Union, said those were “upsetting examples” to be building the new rule around.
Shortly before those tragic events, a study of the grading practices of eight auditing companies found the auditors being hired by the food industry rarely give a bad mark. On average, 93.5 percent gave scores between 90 and 100 percent. Only 1 out of 100 companies being audited, on average, failed to obtain certification.
“Perhaps based on a desire to be hired again, auditors are handling out A’s like candy on halloween,” food safety attorney Dave Babcock said.
Third-party auditors, however, gained a role in the FSMA because that’s what Congress wanted. “Congress has come up with a framework that applies in very limited circumstances where Congress has felt that a quality, reliable third-party audit should pay a part in the public assurance system for food safety,” said Mike Taylor, who ran the FSMA rule-making.
FDA’s rapidly expanding global regulatory role pretty much makes the days of relying on any one-thing a thing of the past. The agency is responsible for regulating food bound for the U.S. from 150 countries, from more than 250,000 facilities and 130,000 importers.
Americans purchase about 50 percent of their fruit, 20 percent of their fresh vegetables, and 80 percent of their seafood from production beyond U.S. borders.
“Border and port inspections are highly visible events that deliver a strong message that the American food supply is routinely being monitored, “ Patricia Buck, director of Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, told the outreach session.
She noted FDA built new global regulations around the previous import rules for seafood and juice, which are subject to verification.
The final rule gives FDA authority to accredit a third-party auditor quickly under certain limited circumstances. It also includes conflict of interest safeguards and certain international standards.
FDA also might rely upon foreign governments or their food safety regulatory authorities or a private third party.
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