WASHINGTON — The Grocery Manufacturers Association outlined an imported-food safety proposal here last week that centers on contamination prevention in foods' country of origin, and would allocate U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection resources to foods posing higher risks.
If adopted, “Commitment to Consumers: The Four Pillars of Food Safety” would also require importers to adopt a foreign-supplier quality assurance program and verify that imported food and food ingredients meet FDA's food safety and quality requirements.
“Ensuring the United States has the safest food supply in the world is priority No. 1 for the food and beverage industry,” said Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer of GMA. “Because we cannot simply inspect our way to a safer food supply, industry can apply its vast knowledge and practical experience along the entire supply chain to prevent problems before they arise. And under our proposal, a fortified FDA will be right there with us, side by side, to make sure we do it right.”
Current FDA resources allow the agency to inspect only about 1% of food imports.
Under the plan, importers would have to ensure that their entire supply chain is meeting quality assurance requirements. The program would be monitored and enforced by the FDA.
Manufacturers and other importers that fail to meet the requirements, should the proposal pass, could be barred from marketing their goods in the U.S., noted Scott Openshaw, spokesman for GMA.
“Many of our member companies already have supplier quality assurance programs that are best-in-class, so they won't have to make any major changes,” he related. “Others will have to make significant changes, and associated costs will bear themselves out across the supply chain.”
Under the plan, food importers would have the ability to qualify their products as lower risk by sharing test results, data and supply chain information with the FDA in exchange for expedited border treatment. This would free up resources so that the FDA could focus on countries and products that are deemed higher risk.
“It would shrink the haystack and the number of needles being searched,” noted Openshaw.
With that goal in mind, the model also seeks to build capacity within foreign governments to facilitate safety standards that are more aligned with the FDA's.
The proposed plan also addresses the need for additional FDA resources and reinforces GMA's commitment to the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, which was formed a year ago to build public support and funding for the agency.
“For quite some time now, GMA has been pretty vocal about the fact that the FDA has been woefully underfunded,” said Openshaw. “This serves as an extension of our call to Congress to double the FDA's budget over five years. We're still fleshing out the details of this plan, so we could indeed end up recommending that it receive even more money.”
GMA's proposal comes just one week after the White House's Interagency Working Group on Import Safety released its strategic framework for improved import safety.
President Bush created the panel of cabinet officials in July to identify actions and appropriate steps that can be pursued, within existing resources, to promote the safety of imported products. It's chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.
Although the Four Pillars proposal was in the works prior to the Working Group's formation, GMA's plan fits into the structure the Working Group set forth earlier this month, noted Openshaw, in that it focuses on a life-cycle approach.
The Working Group's report, titled “Protecting American Consumers Every Step of the Way,” outlines six building blocks that include: advancing a common vision; increasing accountability, enforcement and deterrence; focusing on risks over the life cycle of an imported product; building interoperable systems; fostering a culture of collaboration; and promoting technological innovation and new science.
“We actually cooperated a number of times [with the Working Group] while it was creating its strategic framework, and that's reflected in its report,” said Openshaw.
The Working Group is soliciting comments on its model and will produce an action plan in November.
Meanwhile, GMA will work to firm up the details of its Four Pillars plan.
“We'll work closely with Congress to help formulate legislation to bring the program to fruition,” said Openshaw. “Some details are still going to have be fleshed out, and that'll involve help from the industry, GMA, Congress, the Bush administration and the [FDA].”
GMA's proposal has not been without criticism.
Last week, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, found fault with the model because it doesn't endorse country-of-origin labeling and enactment of clear FDA recall authority.
“If the industry is serious about maintaining consumer confidence in the food supply, they must endorse these measures,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, in a statement.
Ninety-two percent of consumers surveyed as part of a Consumers Union poll favor mandatory country-of-origin labeling, and 97% think federal agencies should have the authority to recall tainted meat.