As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series: An in-depth look at how one Latin American FDA office promotes safer food

With over 220,000 foreign food facilities from over 150 countries registered to import food into the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a lot to keep track of.

Food Safety News recently had a chance to chat with Dr. Paul Seligman, regional director of Latin American programs for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about how the agency is working to improve food safety in the region.

Dr. Seligman, based at FDA’s Latin American regional headquarters at the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, has a broad jurisdiction–all of Latin America and the Caribbean–and only 16 staff, based in various regional offices and at FDA headquarters in Maryland.


Q: What is the primary mission of the FDA office in San Jose, Costa Rica?

A: The opening of our Latin American office has been part of an agency-wide FDA initiative to establish for the first time in late 2008 and in 2009, our offices overseas.  

We now have three offices in China: in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou; two offices in India: in New Delhi and Mumbai; two offices in Europe: one in Brussels and one in London, with a third office soon to be opened in Parma, Italy.  And we now have three offices here in Latin America.  We are headquartered–the regional headquarters is here in San Jose, Costa Rica.  We also have an office in Santiago, Chile, and we opened our office officially in December in Mexico City, and our staff will be arriving there in a couple weeks to take up their posts.  

Our primary mission is basically to support the mission of the FDA. [The agency] regulates about a quarter of the US economy. Our mission is to ensure that those foods and medical products that are made available to the American public are safe and that they are effective.

In our mission, we really needed to work closely with government regulators, industry, with academia, with multinational organizations to ensure that products that are shipped to America, that are imported to the United States, meet the same standards and same levels and scrutiny that we apply to products that are produced domestically within the United States.

Q: What are your primary day-to-day duties?

A: One of the things that we have been most focused on is serving as a venue, as a portal for information about the FDA and to really serve, to facilitate both the government as well as the private sector in getting information about our regulations, about our guidances, etc. for people who want to import products to the United States.

We field a lot of questions about who that is, about labeling, about you know, residues, about the content of products, about what testing is required, about what are the permitted colors that you can use in a cosmetic, on whether the FDA regulates water, on whether you have to label coffee, etc. Our job is to field those questions, to answer them when we can, and if it’s a particularly technical question, to ensure that that question gets referred to the right professional or technical person in the FDA. It really is to promote easier exchange of technical information. Our staff spends a good portion of their time just fielding and answering those kinds of questions.

Our second objective here is to build strong and close and long-lasting trusting relationships so that we get to know who is doing what in various governmental ministries that regulate foods and medicines and medical products and veterinary products within the country.

Although we are located here in Costa Rica, a lot of our work is to develop relationships and contacts and identify areas for mutual collaboration in countries throughout the region. We also strive to be knowledgeable of the regulations and the guidance practices of other regions and to advocate for the ongoing international and regional efforts to harmonize standards.  

There’s a lot that goes on at the international bodies like the Codex Alimentarius, and the international bodies like the Pan American Health Organization, like the United Nations, FAO, and we want to be where we can supportive of those multilateral and international efforts to ensure that product standards and product regulations are as harmonized as they can be and that they don’t present a barrier to the free and appropriate exchange of goods across borders, not only throughout the region but between the region of the United States and Europe and throughout the world.

Q: What are the highest priorities for FDA in Costa Rica?

A: I don’t think we have any particular priorities in Costa Rica. I think our priorities are regional ones: to facilitate the information exchange, build close relationships, identify areas for mutual collaboration and where appropriate, assistance in helping to build capacity.  

Regionally, one area that is of particular interest and importance to us is in laboratory capacity. A country’s ability to assess quality of its products, whether it’s drug residues, pesticide residues, and microbial contamination is critical now to their ability to safely export products, but also their ability to offer products for sale within their own country.  And not only ensuring that laboratories have appropriate capacity techniques, equipment-trained personnel, and that they also–as we do in the US–try to work together to share knowledge, I think is going to be an important effort for us throughout the region, not just in Costa Rica.

See Food Safety News tomorrow and Friday for Parts II and III of our discussion on FDA’s outreach in Latin America.