U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor delivered remarks before a truly international audience Thursday, highlighting the new food safety law’s impact on imports.

Taylor emphasized that improving food safety is both the right thing to do and good for business in his speech before the Global Food Safety Conference in London, an event produced by the Global Food Safety Initiative, an international organization seeking to harmonize global food safety standards. Over 600 food safety experts and corporate leaders from 40 countries were in attendance.

“All of you in this room acutely understand the major disruptions to our economies and to international trade that occur in the wake of major foodborne illness outbreaks and product recalls,” said Taylor. “You understand how these crises can undermine consumer confidence for months and years to come … we know we can do better, and we must do better.”

“That understanding, shared by industry and consumers alike in the United States, brought together an unprecedented coalition to gain passage of our new law,” explained Taylor. “That understanding underlies the consensus we have in the United States that science- and risk-based prevention of food safety problems is good for consumers and good for the food industry.”

Import safety was one of the driving forces behind the new law, which increases inspection frequencies, authority to access records and third party verification abroad, according to Taylor, citing the fact that 15 percent of U.S. food supply is imported, including half of fresh fruit, 20 percent of vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

“Of course, government plays a vital role in providing scientific leadership, setting standards for effective prevention of food safety problems, and ensuring through inspection and other means that those standards are understood and met,” said Taylor. “But everything we do to improve food safety rests on the foundation of the food industry fulfilling its duty to do everything it reasonably can to make food safe.”

“Congress made very clear that this responsibility does not stop at the water’s edge,” said Taylor.

“Importers will, for the first time, have a clearly defined responsibility and accountability for the safety of the food they bring into our country,” he explained. “The new importer accountability provisions require importers to implement a foreign supplier verification program.”

Taylor told the audience that the verification program is a “centerpiece” of import safety reform.

In addition to the verification program, FDA will be expected to increase the number of inspections at hundreds of thousands of foreign food facilities importing food into the U.S.

According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, in 2008, FDA inspected 153 foreign food facilities out of an estimated 189,000 such facilities registered with FDA. In 2009, that number was 210. Under the new law, FDA is expected to conduct 600 inspections in the first year and that number is required to double each subsequent year for five years. 

The FDA is also required to establish a system of accrediting third-party auditors to evaluate foreign facilities.

Taylor acknowledged that the FDA’s mandate and expectations under the new law will be difficult to meet and he ended his remarks by asking for the global food industry’s “expertise and experience” to support the agency’s goals.

“Consumers around the world, not just in the United States, expect and demand safe food, no matter its source,” he said, in closing. “We need to live up to those expectations.”