UPDATE 2-U.S. FDA proposes food companies verify safety of imports

Fri Jul 26, 2013 4:38pm EDT

(Adds comment from food groups, lawmaker, FDA comment period)
    By Carey Gillam
    July 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
proposed rules on Friday that would require food companies to
verify that the products they import meet certain safety
standards.
    The rules are the latest in a series proposed under the Food
Safety Modernization Act, which was signed in 2011 and
represents the most sweeping food safety reform in more than 70
years.
    More than 3,000 people in the United States die each year
from food-borne illnesses, according to federal data. One in six
are sickened and 100,000 hospitalized from illness tied to
pathogens such as salmonella, E.Coli and listeria.
    Under the proposals, companies would be required to identify
hazards associated with each food that might be reasonably
likely to occur. They would have to keep records, which would be
subject to audits. The audits would be carried out by private
firms accredited by an FDA-sanctioned body such as a government.
    "We are very confident that, if we are able to implement
this over time, we certainly will reduce the burden of illness,"
 Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and
veterinary medicine, said in an interview. "We don't think we'll
get to zero. But we know that these conscientious preventive
measures work."
    The purpose of new law is to move the FDA into preventative
mode when dealing with food-borne illness from the reactive mode
in which it has operated historically. Once fully enacted, the
law will give the agency increased powers to inspect facilities
and enforce compliance with safety standards.
    The United States imports about 15 percent of its total food
supply from overseas. For some sectors, such as seafood, fruits
and vegetables, and spices, the imports are much higher. 
    For fiscal 2013, the biggest agricultural exporters to the
United States are forecast to be Canada and Mexico, according to
the U.S. Department of Agriculture. China, Brazil, Indonesia and
Thailand are other major suppliers.   
    The FDA said it will continue to conduct border inspections
and will increase inspections at foreign facilities.
    This summer, at least 150 people in the United States were 
sickened with Hepatitis A linked to pomegranate seeds imported
from Turkey and used in a frozen berry mix sold in U.S. stores.
And cucumbers imported from Mexico were linked to an outbreak of
Salmonella that sickened 84 people in 18 states.
    The proposals drew praise from several groups. The Produce
Marketing Association said the rules must advance "produce
safety in a meaningful way for industry members that also
protects public health."   
    And Sandra Eskin, director for food safety at The Pew
Charitable Trusts, said "it is important and long overdue."
    Additional proposals are in development. Within the next few
months, FDA hopes to issue a proposal to improve the safety of
animal feed and pet food, Taylor said. It is also working on
rules to better protect against intentional tampering with food,
and on rules on food transportation.
    The FDA has missed several deadlines to implement the new
food law. In June, a federal court ordered the FDA to finalize
its rules by June 30, 2015, and said all draft rule proposals
must be presented to the public by Nov. 30 of this year.
    "Food safety is a global problem. We're all eager to get
this done as expeditiously as possible," said Taylor.
    Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, urged the
FDA and federal government to implement the rules as quickly as
possible.
    "American families should never have to worry that their
dinner will make them ill," she said. 
    The law has its critics. Baylen Linnekin, director of Keep
Food Legal, a group that opposes many food regulations, said the
FDA is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to provide
Americans "with a false veneer of safety."
    The FDA will hold a 120-day comment period on its proposals.
It also on Friday extended by 60 days the comment period on
rules proposed in January covering safety for U.S.-grown
produce. That comment period is now set to end on Sept. 16.     
 

 (Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington;
Editing by Ros Krasny, Bob Burgdorfer, Sofina Mirza-Reid Editing
by Andre Grenon)