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Tackling imported food safety risks: FDA unveils data-driven, smarter approach
The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has unveiled a new strategy to advance its food safety mission and modernize the oversight of imported food. The strategy is part of an overhaul to improve food safety in the supply chain and comes as the quantity of imported foods into the US is increasing. The new modernized plan leverages different tools to provide “a data-driven, smarter approach” to imported food safety, including predictive risk modeling to identify whether foods need to be tested or stopped at the border.
Currently, more than 200 countries and around 125,000 food facilities and farms supply approximately 32 percent of fresh vegetables, 55 percent of fresh fruit and 94 percent of the seafood consumed in the US annually.
But the increasingly globalized and complex marketplace has also placed new challenges on the US food safety system.
FDA’s imported food safety goals include preventing food safety problems in the foreign supply chain prior to entry into the US, effectively detecting and refusing entry of unsafe foods at the border and rapidly responding when the FDA learns of unsafe imported foods. An overarching fourth goal is to create an effective and efficient food import program.
“We’re taking an important, new step to communicate how the FDA intends to use our modern toolkit by introducing a new, comprehensive, imported food safety strategy to address these challenges and opportunities,” says FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb. “To achieve our first goal of preventing imported safety problems prior to entry into the US, we’ll take new steps to continue to ensure that food offered for import meets the same standards as domestically produced food.”
The FDA expects approximately 15 million shipments of imported food this year.
One of the ways it works to ensure that imported food is safe is on-site inspections overseas which require importers to verify that their suppliers are meeting US food safety standards. This also allows importers to get accredited to enable their products to enter the US faster, educates foreign suppliers about US food safety rules and tests food at the border. In addition, the FDA has arrangements in place with Canada, Australia and New Zealand to rely on each other’s food safety systems. The FDA is working on a similar agreement with the EU.
Detecting and refusing unsafe food
The FDA says that while it works to prevent problematic foreign food from reaching the border, under the overhaul, it’s equally focused on detecting and refusing unsafe products. As part of this, the FDA has updated its import screening and review processes at the US border.
“The FDA is charged with examining foods offered for import into the US, including high-risk foods. To accomplish this complex task, the FDA utilizes its Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT). This is an automated import screening tool that helps us to identify high-risk shipments of food offered for import,” Gottlieb adds.
“As part of our new strategy, the FDA intends to optimize this tool 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.”
“This will allow us to form a more complete picture of the risk of imported food in a new era of smarter food safety. 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 US marketplace,” he notes.
Despite advances in promoting food safety, millions of people still get sick each year from foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the US. Additionally, others are harmed by chemical and physical hazards associated with food intake.
In 2011, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. Through FSMA, the FDA was charged with creating an oversight system designed primarily to prevent food safety problems from occurring, preferably before the food arrives at the US border or reaches the plates of US consumers.
The imported foods safety overhaul follows the FDA issuing new draft guidance that will help determine when it is necessary and appropriate for retailers to be publicly identified when a food recall or outbreak is underway. Agency policy has previously prohibited the release of such information, citing considerations for “confidential” business relationships