As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series: An in-depth look at how the FDA’s headquarters in Latin America works to promote safer food

With over 220,000 foreign food facilities in more than 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 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.

See PART I of our discussion with Dr. Seligman, on the FDA’s operations in Latin America here. And PART II, on the FDA reform bill, and challenges in the region, here.


Q: Does the FDA have specific goals for Latin American food regulation in 2010? What are the most pressing priorities/areas of risk for the region?

A: Other than what I mentioned regarding laboratory capacity, I think, for me, the most pressing priority is really establishing good relationships and becoming acquainted with how the regulatory authorities operate, as well as how products move through the systems in each country prior to exportation.  I say this because, historically, our import alert process has been a fairly blunt instrument. If we discover there are contaminated cantaloupes coming from Honduras and we can’t trace the source of those cantaloupes, we have to place an import alert on all cantaloupes coming from Honduras.  When, in reality, they may be coming from one farm or one processor, or one place and part of a building. These stronger relationships allow us to work closely with industry and regulatory authorities to rapidly asses the situation locally and get to the root of the problem, so that we can (A) fix the problem right away, and (B) so that we don’t have to take more months or sweeping actions that may effect the whole industry.

I know that there are a lot of countries in the region that are already working hard toward building systems that will allow them to trace, particularly food products, from the farm to the processing, to the packaging. Having that traceability capability will go a long way to helping to identify problems when they arrive, whether it be with biological contamination, pesticide concerns, or any other problem related to the quality of a food product.  

Q: It sounds like you have an enormous jurisdiction (all of Latin America), and obviously there’s lots of food being imported from the entire region.  Just so I’m clear, your office doesn’t actually conduct inspections, you build better relationships with public health regulators in the countries…

A: Yes.

Q: Are there other Latin American offices that actually conduct food facility inspections?  

A: FDA has always had a very active inspection program here in Latin America.  In fact, it’s always had a very active inspection program throughout the world.  We just, because of our close proximity to the US, we continue to rely on inspectors who are scattered throughout the United States to do inspections for us here in Latin America. That’s why we’re more focused on capacity building, on collaborations, on information exchange, on training.  

It’s different in our offices in India and China, where we place both types of individuals- individuals like ourselves, as well as inspectors.  And again, that is primarily for logistical reasons.  We did do a lot of inspections in China and India, but every time we did them, we had to do them at the expense of sending people over there, they had to get re-acclimated, time zone change, and whatever, and both for logistical reasons, as well as the fact that for many products, particularly the pharmaceutical area, the amount of materials being produced in both China and India and shipped to the United States has increased almost 1000 percent, almost 100 fold in the last decade, so we really felt we needed to have that inspection capability in those two parts of the world.  But here, we’re relying on our inspectors from the US to continue to support us.

Q: So, for example, in Costa Rica or Honduras, do they have local authorities that are conducting inspections, and then do they share information with you? If they were to find a field of cantaloupes contaminated with Salmonella, would they contact you?  Is there coordination with local authorities?

A: That gets back to my initial point about the extraordinary diversity of capabilities within the region.  Chile has a very strong inspection workforce, Brazil does, Mexico, but in many parts of the world, the government inspection workforce is either small or in some cases, almost non-existent.  That’s one of the things we hope to be able to work on–on building capacity–we hope to be able to focus on in our coming years as a long-term strategy for our work in Latin America.  

One of the elements of the bills before Congress has to do with the responsibilities of manufacturers to report problems, and I’m sure that will equally apply to imported products, should that element of the legislation become law.

Q: I know that the FDA has had a long history of having difficulty of keeping track of foreign food facilities.  Do you have any idea how many food facilities are under FDA jurisdiction in Latin America?

A: I have no idea. Actually, I don’t know how readily available that number is.

I think also that as part of the legislation, there will be some stronger data keeping requirements as well, which will allow us to get a better handle around the precise question you just asked.

Q: Are there more offices planned for Latin America?

A: Not at the moment. We’ve talked about extending our reach to other countries, but we’re also I think, looking at the federal budget for the future, and there’s nothing on the drawing board at present.