By Pat Anson, Editor
As federal and state health officials try to find the source of a stomach virus that has sickened hundreds of people – possibly caused by imported produce – the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to tighten regulation of foreign food suppliers.
Calling it a “fundamental shift” in its oversight of imported foods, the FDA said it would make food importers more accountable for food safety and would establish audits of foreign food producers. The proposed rules are the next major steps in implementing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2011.
“We must work toward global solutions to food safety so that whether you serve your family food grown locally or imported you can be confident that it is safe,” says FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD.
Many consumers in the Midwest are wondering just how safe their food is, after over 300 people in over half a dozen states were sickened by a stomach infection caused by a one celled parasite called cyclospora. Well over half the cyclospora infections are in Iowa and Nebraska. At least 18 people have been hospitalized. Symptoms of cyclosporiasis include watery diarrhea, vomiting and body aches.
The exact cause of the illness hasn’t been identified, but the parasite is most commonly found in fresh produce grown in tropical and subtropical regions.
“Because no food item has been implicated to date we’re not yet sure the cases in the various states are related,” said Dr. Barbara Herwaldt, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Much of the food that Americans eat is imported – about 15% of the U.S. food supply comes from 150 different countries — including 20% of the fresh vegetables, 50% of the fresh fruit and a whopping 85% of the seafood.
According to the Department of Agriculture, food imports to the U.S. doubled from $41 billion in 1999 to $86 billion in 2010. Despite the growing reliance on imports, there has been little regulation and only sporadic inspection of foreign food.
The proposed FDA rules would require importers to police themselves, by sampling, testing and identifying hazards associated with each food. Third-party auditors hired by importers would conduct inspections of foreign food facilities. The FDA would monitor the audits and could revoke an auditor’s accreditation for good cause.
“We will continue to check food at our borders. However, rather than relying almost entirely on FDA’s investigators at the ports to detect and respond to food safety problems, importers would—for the first time—be held accountable for verifying, in a manner transparent to FDA, that the food they import is safe,” says Michael R. Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
“Today’s long-delayed announcement that the Food and Drug Administration is moving forward on regulations to increase the safety of imported foods is good news and, if finalized, will lead to safer foods,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group.
“The proposed foreign supplier verification rule, and another proposed rule recognizing audits and certification of foreign food facilities, rely on private industry to take steps to check their products. Supplier verification means that companies should know who they are buying from ─ not just their name and address, but their food safety practices.”
Meanwhile, as health officials try to find the source of the cyclospora infections, the CDC is urging consumers to be cautious about the fresh produce they eat.
“The best way to prevent infection is to avoid the food causing it, but since we don’t know what that is yet, as always, people should make sure they wash any fresh food to reduce risk,” said a CDC spokesperson.