At the end of February, a recall was announced for frozen catfish imports from Asia after federal inspectors discovered the fish had not undergone import re-inspection before being distributed from companies in California and Texas.
An Israeli company’s tahini products packaged under five different brand names are recalled because a sample tested positive for Salmonella.
A recall of six different brands of curry powder is initiated after sampling by U.S. government regulators found elevated levels of lead in the product.
These and other recalls in recent years involving such widely-used products as imported pet food have become headline news in recent years, raising concerns over the safety of food imports.
This country imports about 15% of its overall food supply from more than 200 countries or territories, representing about 125,000 international food facilities and farms. Many in the retail, logistics and freight transportation sectors are responsible for handling these products safely.
Those involved in the sales and distribution of imported foods understand well the alphabet soup of agencies, programs and processes they must navigate to do their jobs. Advances in technology have encouraged burgeoning growth in food products displayed on the shelves of corner bodegas and national supermarket chains, as well as via e-commerce.
Technology also is key to making sure these food imports are safe and can be distributed efficiently at the same time, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which recently announced a comprehensive plan for modernizing its enforcement activities.
The enormous volume and variety of imported food and the complexity of global supply chains make food safety a challenging issue for FDA to address, the agency points out. “Over the past 15 years alone, we’ve seen a trend of rising imported foods. Other countries now supply about 32% of the fresh vegetables, 55% of the fresh fruit and 94% of the seafood that Americans enjoy,” notes FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
“We work hard every day to ensure that the U.S. food supply remains among the safest in the world,” he adds. “The FDA intends to use our modern toolkit by introducing a new, comprehensive, imported food safety strategy to address these challenges and opportunities.”
Gottlieb says the agency’s new strategy is designed to meet four important goals: preventing food safety problems in the foreign supply chain prior to entry into the U.S.; detecting and refusing entry of unsafe foods; responding quickly when the FDA learns of unsafe foods; and measuring progress to ensure imported food safety program remain effective and efficient.
To prevent safety problems prior to entry into the U.S., the agency is taking new steps to ensure that imported food meets the same standards as domestically produced food. This includes beefing up the process for handling onsite inspections of food facilities in foreign locations.
Noting that these inspections are resource-intensive, FDA says its strategy now involves a more modern focus on tools for risk-informed prioritizing of firms for inspection to fulfill the goals of its Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP). This program offers importers expedited review and entry of their food based on the safety assurances that the audits provide.
The agency also intends to collaborate with foreign governments, standards development organizations and others to remove inefficiency from the process. One example of this effort are the system recognition arrangements made with New Zealand, Canada and Australia, FDA says. The agency also is working with the European Union on a mutual assessment program.
“Our decisions will be informed by an increasing amount of data and information from other oversight activities and partners,” Gottlieb explains. To that end, FDA recently began inspections for the FDA’s Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) rule, which covers modified procedures for use by eligible small importers or importers of food from certain small foreign suppliers.
“By leveraging partnerships between the U.S. and other countries with very strong food safety systems through our systems recognition program, we’re able to prioritize our inspection and border screening activities on foods imported from higher-risk areas,” Gottlieb says.
Ports of Entry Advances
FDA also will pursue detecting and refusing unsafe products by updating import screening, sampling, testing and review processes at more than 300 active U.S. ports of entry. To accomplish this complex task, the FDA intends to improve its Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT) program, an automated import screening tool that helps us to identify high-risk shipments of food offered for import
Plans call for optimizing PREDICT by incorporating new sources of data from foreign supplier verification programs, voluntary importer incentive programs, accredited third-party auditors, foreign regulatory authorities and domestic supply chain activities. FDA also says it will collaborate with state and other regulatory authorities, make use of import alerts and require import certification as a condition of admission, where appropriate.
“This will allow us to form a more complete picture of the risk of imported food in a new era of smarter food safety,” Gottlieb observes. “By enhancing our access to various data streams, we’ll be better positioned to catch issues with imported foods before they are made available in the U.S. marketplace.”
He also points out that despite FDA’s best efforts to prevent and stop unsafe food from entering the U.S., it’s impossible to completely stop all unsafe food products. FDA’s new strategy calls for using data from multiple sources to optimize the physical examination process. This includes developing strategic and targeted surveillance sampling for the products deemed to present the highest risk.
Gottlieb also stresses that FDA will continue to work closely with state and other partners on how to improve testing methods and tools for determining the admissibility of food imports. This effort includes improving the efficiency of the agency’s response to food safety incidents, such as expanded use of the FDA’s mandatory recall authority, import alerts and information sharing with regulatory partners.
The agency already is in the process of developing performance measures and outcome indicators for imported food safety, he reports. It intends to publish, incorporating measures and non-confidential data about imported food, foreign suppliers, FSVP importers and other importers as it becomes available.
“Overall, our modern strategy is designed to leverage our different authorities and tools to provide a multi-layered, data-driven, smarter approach to imported food safety,” Gottlieb concludes. “We recognize that the FDA plays an important oversight role in securing consumer safety. We’re fully committed to keeping our food safety mission robust and highly effective in this increasingly complex and global food landscape.”