On January 4, my Pew colleagues and I applauded President Obama and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for releasing two sets of draft rules central to implementing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the first major update to our food safety laws in more than 70 years. The law signals a long-overdue shift in FDA’s food safety strategy. Instead of reacting to an outbreak after it occurs, the agency will focus on preventing illnesses before they happen. This emphasis on prevention should help strengthen food safety and reduce foodborne illnesses, which strike about 48 million Americans and are responsible for more than $77 billion in health-related costs each year.
The administration has taken an important step, but it must do more. Important draft regulations focused on the safety of imported foods are still awaiting release. These rules, which include the creation of a new Foreign Supplier Verification Program, are especially important since about two-thirds of fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood consumed in the United States come from abroad. Overall, imports account for as much as 15 percent of all food consumed in U.S. households—and that figure is growing about 10 percent annually.
Merrill Behnke, a 30-year-old mom from Bellevue, Wash., is a prime example of why we need import rules. She is one of 22 people in 14 states sickened by imported cheese contaminated with the dangerous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. Merrill spent 16 days in the hospital, followed by several weeks of intravenous antibiotic treatments at home, where she often could not interact with her one-year-old daughter. In addition to the Listeria outbreak, mangoes, pine nuts, papayas and raw tuna used in sushi sickened 723 people and killed four nationwide. These illnesses and deaths all occurred after Congress passed FSMA in January 2011, and all involved imported foods.
In the years leading up to the enactment of FSMA, FDA relied primarily on minimal border inspections to identify safety problems, leaving at least 98 percent of imported foods unexamined by agency officials. When implemented, however, the new Foreign Supplier Verification Program will hold importers responsible for making sure the food they bring into the United States is safe. Americans are also waiting for proposed rules governing the use of private, third-party auditors who, in certain instances, can be relied on to help ensure the safety of imported food.
Industry and consumer advocates welcomed the new draft standards for fresh produce and processed foods and want to see them finalized quickly. However, it is essential that the administration also release and make final the import safety requirements. This is the best way to make sure imported food is safe to enjoy, and to prevent what Merrill and her family experienced from happening to other Americans.