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U.S. Food Safety: Solutions at a Glance

From user fees to traceability reforms, no shortages here

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 16 (HealthDay News) -- There's no shortage of proposed solutions for filling the safety gaps in the U.S. food system.

Many suggestions focus on the oft-stated reforms of establishing one federal "superagency" to monitor food safety; beefing up the overworked U.S. Food and Drug Administration; or, at the very least, giving the FDA the ability to recall tainted food products.

But there are other proposed solutions, which include:

  • Introducing food-inspection user fees. For the past 15 years, the FDA has gained much of the funding it uses for the drug-approvals process from the fees it levies on drug companies. Many experts believe that by charging food importers similar fees, the agency could expand its food-inspection efforts.
  • Basing inspections on risk. Under current law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspections Service requires foreign countries and firms to meet "U.S. equivalency" standards for meat, poultry and egg products before allowing them into the United States. The FDA could follow a similar process, vetting more reliable firms beforehand and focusing inspections on goods from countries and companies that don't make the grade.
  • Working with Homeland Security and other agencies. Since 9/11, funds allocated to inspect shipping containers for bioterror and other hazards have increased -- even as the FDA's food-inspection budget has declined. As part of the 2002 federal Container Security Initiative, inspectors with the Department of Homeland Security now routinely inspect goods due to be shipped to the United States from 50 ports worldwide. FDA inspectors stationed in these ports could also check on food, experts say.
  • Improving product traceability. This year's protracted search for the source of melamine in tainted pet food from China showed how tough it can be to track the origins of a particular imported food or food ingredient. Experts have testified that systems of traceability are needed to track from the farm level to the retail sector. That includes "country of origin" labeling on food, so consumers could make informed decisions as to which products they might want to avoid when outbreaks occur.
  • Investing in training and technology. Even if additional funding for the FDA were to materialize, trained food technologists are in woefully short supply, according to experts. Such technologists might be a part of FDA inspection teams, and newer technologies could also get more product inspected more quickly.

Back in March, the FDA came up with "non-binding" guidelines for food processors to try to reduce instances of food poisoning in fresh produce. This was the first time any such suggestions had been made for the produce industry.

Others think the food industry can create its own solutions.

"I think things have changed now and... companies are willing to talk about mandatory guidelines," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents the nation's top food producers, unveiled in September a "four pillars" plan to increase government oversight -- but of imports rather than domestically produced food.

The new strategy is also meant to take "a bit of the burden off of the FDA," said Jenny Scott, vice president of food safety programs at GMA.

According to Scott, the four pillars include:

  • a mandatory paper trail for importers that ensures that anyone supplying a U.S. company puts in place programs that assure their products meet U.S. safety standards;
  • giving countries and foreign firms with good safety records expedited clearance through inspections, thereby allowing the FDA to focus on products that present the biggest risk;
  • lobbying for more resources for the FDA to oversee food safety;
  • bolstering efforts within foreign countries to improve safety standards there.

"Ideally, we would like to put programs in place that prevent these problems overseas, so that we're not just relying on us to catch them at the border," Scott explained.

The GMA is opposed to certain other recommendations, such as importer user fees. "We look at that as just being another tax," Scott said.

It also opposes granting the FDA recall authority over foods.

"There are maybe only two incidents that I can remember in the last 10 years where the company refused [to recall goods], and, in both instances, the FDA came out with a press release that was worse than them doing a recall, because it said, 'You are making a hazardous product,' " Scott said.

GMA also opposes country-of-origin labeling. "A lot of people think, 'Well, if I know that it's from China, then I won't eat it,' " Scott said. "But that kind of muddies the water, because there's a lot coming from China that is safe. It doesn't tell you as much as people think it would."

As for product traceability, Scott said time-tested, reliable systems are already in place. Most food companies know who they received a particular product from, she said, and they also know where they are sending their products. This creates a kind of information "chain" that Scott said is pretty easy to follow, right back to the farm.

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