From tainted vegetable protein and pet food to peppers contaminated with Salmonella, unsafe food imports have posed a problem for the United States and the FDA, which has been able to inspect only about 1 percent of the 10 million or so products shipped into the country each year.

That is supposed to change under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which directs the FDA to better monitor the rapidly expanding number of foreign food suppliers.

To meet that mandate, FDA Monday outlined what it calls “a new global strategy” to increase inspections and work with other governments. The report, “Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality” includes four main approaches:

1. Teaming up with regulatory counterparts worldwide.

2. Developing international information systems and networks to share data and regulatory resources.

3. Increasing its own information gathering and analysis with an enhanced focus on risk.

4.  Using qualified public and private third-party audits to certify that foreign food facilities comply with U.S. requirements, and allocating resources based on risk.

Noting that FDA-regulated imports have quadrupled since 2000, Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Margaret Hamburg said, “The FDA and our global regulatory partners recognize this new reality and realize we must work proactively and collaboratively to address the challenges we face.  The FDA must further collaborate and leverage in order to close the gap between our import levels and our regulatory resources.”

But international information technology will be expensive, and third-party audits have not always worked well domestically. Further, a significant barrier to the new law’s implementation may well be funding — the FY 2012 budget sent by the House of Representatives to the Senate last week cuts FDA food safety spending.

About 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, as is about 60 percent of the fruit and vegetables. The new law requires FDA to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities in the next year, doubling that number each year for 6 years until it can inspect more than 19,000 foreign food facilities by the year 2016.

  • Andre Williamson

    “The FDA must further collaborate and leverage in order to close the gap between our import levels and our regulatory resources.”
    Given that import levels are growing at a rate many times faster than regulatory resources, this is impossible on its face. The gap can’t be narrowed, much less “closed.”
    (The statement also reads like bureaucratese gibberish: leverage is not an intransitive verb.)
    On the inspections side, the law reminds me of country constitutions that outlaw hunger. Looks good on paper, is meaningless in practice. The notion that we can go from 200 foreign inspections to 19,000 while cutting budgets is absolute delusion.
    Why can’t we just call a spade a spade and admit we can’t / don’t want to commit the resources that would be required to fund the level of inspections called for in the law? And that we are simply going to have to rely heavily on foreign counterparts to inspect facilities and improve safety?
    Which is fine and appropriate in some cases, less than ideal in others.