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FDA and USDA should cooperate for import safety: Report

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 15-Oct-2009

The federal government needs to take action to close gaps in the US food safety network, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report, released at the second annual Global Food Safety Policy Forum in Washington DC, specifically targets the safety of food imports. It said that “gaps in enforcement and collaboration” undermine the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to prevent contaminated foods from entering the US, and to ensure that foreign food safety systems provide the same level of protection as the US system.

“To ensure imported food safety, federal agencies must focus their resources on high risk foods and coordinate efforts,” it said.

The GAO report was in agreement with many of the provisions of the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which passed the House in July and now awaits consideration in the Senate, including giving the FDA more authority to deal with manufacturers that violate food safety regulations.

It said: “GAO recommends, among other things, that FDA seek authority from the Congress to assess civil penalties on firms and persons who violate FDA laws, and that the FDA Commissioner explore ways to improve the agency’s ability to identify foreign firms with a unique identifier.”

Reliance on science

Rep. Rosa DeLauro delivered the keynote address at the forum, in which she called for the Senate to pass a strong food safety bill. She also called for better product traceability, equivalency with trading partners and greater reliance on science and technology to improve food import safety.

"This is about food safety science and where we want to go," she said.

Another provision in the bill is to give the FDA authority to set science-based standards for food manufacture and handling and require manufacturers to show how they meet them, or face strong penalties.

The food industry has been rocked by a spate of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years, with pathogens turning up in spinach, jalapeno peppers, and cookie dough, among others. But it was the salmonella outbreak in peanut products earlier this year that prompted the drafting of the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which proposes the first restructuring of food safety law for 70 years.

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