Thursday, March 19, 2009

Food Safety Working Group: Modest Proposal #2

March 19, 2009

Two of the biggest food safety stories in 2008 concerned imported products – melamine-adulterated milk from China and Salmonella-contaminated Mexican peppers. 

These incidents shone an intense, albeit brief, spotlight on some of the gaps in our surveillance of imported food products. Inevitably, one of the priorities of the Food Safety Working Group will be to recommend improvements to bolster our protection against contaminated imports.

The existing FDA Import Program is in a state of chaos. We heard reports last year of inadequate computer systems for screening import data, and an overloaded staff that was unable to cope with the volume of imports. FDA's Import Program System Information web page, intended to provide readers with an overview of the system, is incomplete and under revision. 

Fortunately, there are some ready-made import program models that the Working Group can examine in preparing its recommendations for revamping the US Food Import Safety Program. One of these is Canada's. The other is the system used by Australia and New Zealand.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) has defined two categories – "risk" and "surveillance" –  for imported foods, and directs its surveillance activities accordingly. 

The surveillance category includes foods that are considered to be of low risk. These imports are subjected to a random selection for testing. Five percent of low risk import shipments are inspected at the port of entry and sampled for lab analysis, if appropriate, under a "test and release" program.

"Risk" category imports face a much more stringent "test and hold" entry barrier, as the following description from the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service explains.

The Australian Customs Service refers 100% of risk category foods to AQIS for inspection and testing against a published list of potential hazards determined by FSANZ.

Risk category foods are initially inspected and tested at a rate of 100%. Once five consecutive consignments have passed inspection, the rate is reduced to 25%; after a further 20 consecutive passes, the rate is further reduced to 5%. Regardless of the manufacturer’s history of compliance, any consignments that fail will increase the rate of inspection and testing until a history of compliance is re-established.

The FSANZ program is supplier-based as well as country-based. It's not enough for consecutive consignments from a specific exporting country to pass these compliance criteria. Each individual exporting company must develop and maintain its own compliance history.

This approach to import screening has the great advantage of putting the onus directly onto the shoulders of each individual supplier to demonstrate the safety of its products. Conversely, a single "bad actor" from one country does not adversely impact the export capabilities of other suppliers from that country. 

One could argue that the sheer number of food consignments entering the United States every day would make a system such as Australia's too expensive and unwieldy for US purposes. But there are ways to make this work. We could, for example,
  • Charge a user fee that would cover the cost of inspection and testing;
  • Offer importers the option of an accelerated clearance if they pre-clear their shipments using a government-accredited lab; 
  • Develop an importer-accessible computer database system that would allow the accredited labs to submit their reports directly to FDA; and
  • Develop AND ENFORCE policies and rules that prevent an importer from "lab shopping".

No system of import surveillance can guarantee safety. But a functioning risk-based system that places the burden of proof where it belongs – on the shoulders of the manufacturers and importers – can limit the entry of contaminated food or beverages from outside the United States into the domestic food supply.

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