Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Families and Children Against Dangerous Food Imports

by James Goodwin

November 26, 2014

As I noted in an earlier post, families and friends all across the United States will gather to observe the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow.   Compared to many other countries, we are lucky that during such occasions we are able to focus on the celebrations enjoyed in the company of our loved ones—and not have to worry so much about whether the meal might cause a foodborne illness.  This is because, while far from perfect, the United States has one of the best food safety systems in the world.

With the food supply chain becoming increasingly globalized, however, a strong system for ensuring the safety of domestically produced foods is no longer enough.  Already, 15 percent of the food consumed in the United States is imported.  Imports make up 91 percent of our seafood, 60 percent of our fruits and vegetables, and 61 percent of our honey.   Unfortunately, many of these imported foods come from countries—such as China, Vietnam, and Mexico—that lack effective health and safety regulation.

In all likelihood, the Thanksgiving meal you sit down to tomorrow will include several imported food items—perhaps garlic in mashed potatoes or stuffing, or perhaps the spices used in a pumpkin pie.

Despite the obvious risks of adulteration and contamination, the resource-strapped Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected only 2 percent of food imports and just 0.4 percent of foreign food facilities in 2011.  As the number of food imports increase, this plainly inadequate system for addressing imported food safety will only get worse, leaving more and more Americans at risk of illness or perhaps even premature death.

In part to address this growing threat of contaminated food imports, Congress and President Obama enacted in 2011 the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  The law directs the FDA to issue two key regulations to improve the safety of imported foods:  the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and the Accreditation of Third Parties to Conduct Food Safety Audits.  The first rule would require food importers to verify that their foreign suppliers have adequate measures in place to prevent adulteration and contamination, while the second would create an independent auditing system through which foreign food facilities could become “certified” as complying with U.S. food safety standards.  The basic goal of these two rules would be to ensure that imported foods are held to the same high standards that apply to foods produced domestically.

Together, the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and the Accreditation of Third Parties rules make up one of the “Essential 13” regulatory actions highlighted in a recent CPR Issue Alert that outlines an affirmative agenda for achieving progress on crucial public safeguards that the Obama Administration can and should accomplish during its remaining time in office.  Once in place, these rules will help to ensure meaningful protections for families and children against tainted imported foods, which can cause severe illness and even death.  The accomplishment of these safeguards will also help secure President Obama’s legacy as a president who made great strides in protecting public health and safety.

Despite their critical importance, both of these food import safety rules are already years behind schedule.  The FSMA instructed the FDA to issue the final Foreign Supplier Verification Program and the Accreditation of Third Parties rules by January 2012 and July 2012, respectively, yet both rules are still a long ways from completion.  Indeed, the agency didn’t finish the process of proposing these rules until just this past September.  Because of all of these delays, the FDA is now under a court order to complete both rules by no later than October 2015.

The FDA has plenty of time to complete the rule before the close of the Obama Administration, but it cannot allow any further delays.  Next month, the comment period for the latest round of proposals for each of the two rules is set to close, bringing the first test of whether President Obama will demonstrate the political will necessary for getting these rules across the finish line by next October.  At that point, the FDA must begin working toward finalizing the rules and cannot entertain requests for extending the comment period for either or both of the rules.  Any further delays beyond the October 2015 deadline would only increase the already high costs—measured in premature deaths, debilitating illnesses, and wasted money—that have already accrued as a result of not having an effective regulatory program in place to address the risks posed by dangerous food imports.

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Also from James Goodwin

James Goodwin, J.D., M.P.P., is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in May of 2008.

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