Following issues with Chinese food imports and growing consumer concern about the safety of the food-supply chain, several major industry associations have announced initiatives to increase food safety, particularly among imported foods.
At the end of November, The Grocery Manufacturers Association, based in Washington, D.C., unveiled an action plan for strengthening imported food safety. Called "Commitment to Consumers: The Four Pillars of Food Safety," the proposal is designed to strengthen and modernize the system governing food imports.
The program acknowledges that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cannot physically inspect all food imports; currently the agency visually inspects about 1 percent of food imports, and tests one-tenth of those. "Because we cannot simply inspect our way to a safer food supply, industry can apply its vast knowledge and practical experience along the entire supply chain to prevent problems before they arise," said Cal Dooley, president and CEO of GMA.
If the proposal is adopted by manufacturers, it would require importers to adopt a foreign supplier quality-assurance program to assure that all ingredients and finished products meet FDA standards. It would also encourage foreign governments to adapt food-safety standards similar to those in the U.S. and increase resources for the FDA to focus on food safety. Finally—and this is the pillar that might make increased certification or inspection costs palatable to importers—it would create an import 'fast track' for companies that share their data and supply chain information with FDA, qualifying their products for a lower risk category.
On Nov. 26, the Food Marketing Institute, based in Arlington, Va., announced its support for mandatory recall authority for the FDA in cases where a company refuses or delays a voluntary recall. FMI's annual research shows that consumer confidence in food safety declined from 82 percent last year to 66 percent in May of this year. In spite of these numbers, Tim Hammonds, FMI's president and CEO, believes the food supply is safer than in the past. Ten or 30 years ago, many illnesses now detected by CDC systems simply went unreported. "Today, food safety is top of mind for everyone in the industry and for medical professionals all across the country," Hammonds told NFM. "As a result, standards are higher, detection of problems is faster, and systems to remove products from sale are much more efficient."
Hammonds also touted the Safe Quality Food audit and verification program, owned by FMI, which certifies suppliers and manufacturers with a set of internationally recognized HAACP-based food safety standards and protocols.
Though FMI stopped short of supporting FDA-initiated mandatory recalls across the board—stipulating that such recalls would only take effect when a company delays or refuses a voluntary recall—Hammonds said, "None of our efforts are simply cosmetic. The test is always whether a particular action makes a difference of substance. To the extent that recall authority can encourage rapid and timely negotiations between suppliers and government food safety agencies, consumers are well served."