Momentum behind import safety reform gains speed

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Surging imports of food and other products have tested U.S. import safety assurance procedures and found them wanting. In recent months, adulterated and mislabeled wheat flour from China found its way into domestic pet food marketing channels and poisoned hundreds of pets. Imported toys with lead-based paint were distributed by one of the nation’s most respected toy manufacturers.

In response to consumer fears and concerns about these and other recent incidents, the Bush administration commissioned an interagency working group to develop an action plan to improve the nation’s import safety system. That working group issued its preliminary report Sept. 10.

The food industry, as represented by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (G.M.A.), just days later issued its own proposal for implementing a risk-based food import system. With the administration, Congress and the private sector engaged, changes in how the nation ensures the safety of the food and other products it imports seem imminent.

The interagency working group involves 12 principal departments of government. Its chairman is Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. On Sept. 10, the working group presented a report to the president titled "Protecting American Consumers Every Step of the Way: A Strategic Framework for Continual Improvement in Import Safety."

In a cover letter to President Bush, Mr. Leavitt acknowledged with $2 trillion in imported products in fiscal year 2006, and with that figure projected to triple by 2015, the federal government "cannot and should not attempt to physically inspect every product entering the U.S." Instead, he said, the U.S. has to be "smarter" in what it does.

"This will require shifting from reliance on ‘snapshots’ at the border to interdict unsafe products, to a cost-effective, prevention-focused ‘video’ model that identifies and targets those critical points in the import lifecycle where the risk of unsafe products is greatest and verifies the safety of products at those important phases. Such a risk-based, prevention-focused model will help ensure that safety is built into products before they reach our borders," Mr. Leavitt said.

Mr. Leavitt advised the president the working group will present an action plan on how to implement a risk-based approach to import safety in mid-November.

The strategic framework proposed by the interagency working group is based on three organizing principles: prevention, intervention and response.

The working group said the U.S. government must work with the private sector to adopt an approach to import safety that builds safety into manufacturing and distribution processes. Producers and importers must implement preventive approaches and require their suppliers do the same. The federal government, in turn, must work with foreign governments to assist them in overseeing manufacturers within their borders. Meanwhile, there must be stepped-up enforcement to deter "bad actors."

When risks are identified at the border, government officials must intervene in a coordinated manner to seize, destroy or otherwise prevent dangerous goods from advancing beyond the point of entry.

Should an unsafe import make its way into the domestic stream of commerce, prompt actions must be taken to limit potential exposure and harm to consumers.

"In most instances, existing product recall mechanisms have proved capable in this regard," the group said. "But we can do more."

The federal government must act in close collaboration with state and local governments as well as manufacturers, importers and retailers to contain the problem rapidly.

The group suggested "six building blocks" were required to implement the guiding principles of prevention, intervention and response. These included: advance a common vision; increase accountability, enforcement and deterrence; focus on risks over the lifecycle of an imported product; build interoperable systems; foster a culture of collaboration; and promote technological innovation and new science.

Government agencies must work in accordance with a common vision for import safety. A common vision shared among government agencies would provide clarity to the private sector, the group said.

All actors involved in the production, distribution and sale of imports must be held responsible for meeting their obligations in ensuring imported products meet U.S. safety standards.

"From foreign governments, to foreign manufacturers and distributors, to domestic importers, manufacturers and retailers, import safety can be achieved only through shared efforts and responsibility that encompass the entire production process, as well as the U.S. importing process," the group said.

The government and the private sector must focus on risks over the lifecycle of an imported product, the group asserted.

"Rather than being the primary line of defense, intervention at the U.S. border must become one part of a network of interconnected measures that facilitate the entry of safe, lawful imports and protect the American public," the group added.

The group emphasized the importance of sharing information.

"We need to finalize implementation of interoperable data systems, already under development, that facilitate the exchange of relevant product information among parties within the global supply chain to ensure product safety," the group said.

A new approach to ensuring import safety requires "a new era of collaboration," the group said.

"Specific steps to improve collaboration include: the establishment, communication and enforcement of standards, sharing of relevant safety information, leveraging resources among the agencies in the U.S. government, and seeking state, local and international cooperation as a force multiplier," the group noted.

Important in the pursuit of a new era of collaboration will be working with other nations to harmonize product safety standards.

The study group said government should play a significant role in helping develop new safety assurance technologies and equipment to be employed at vulnerable points in the lifecycle of an import.

The working group indicated proposals for additional authorities and resources may be part of the action plan.

Focused on food

The proposals of the G.M.A. relate specifically to food imports and are framed around "four pillars."

"Because we cannot simply inspect our way to a safer food supply, industry can apply its vast knowledge and practical experiences along the entire supply chain to prevent problems before they arise," said Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer. "And under our proposal, a fortified Food and Drug Administration will be right there with us, side by side, to make sure we do it right."

The first of the four pillars of the G.M.A. proposal would require all importers of record to adopt a foreign supplier quality assurance program and verify imported ingredients and products meet F.D.A. food safety and quality requirements. The program would be based on F.D.A. guidance and industry "best practices" and would be monitored and enforced by the F.D.A.

The second pillar would require the F.D.A. to focus even greater resources on products and countries deemed of higher risk through a program that would allow food companies and importers to qualify their products as lower risk by sharing test results, data and supply chain information with the F.D.A. in a confidential manner. Qualifying products and ingredients would receive expedited treatment at the border, allowing the F.D.A. to concentrate its resources on products that carry greater risk of contamination.

The third pillar entails building capacity within foreign governments to facilitate emplacing food safety standards that are more closely aligned with those of the F.D.A.

The fourth pillar would ensure the F.D.A. is provided the appropriate resources to administer the program and fulfill its food safety mission.

"In recent years, F.D.A.’s capabilities have deteriorated and the agency needs additional funding and support so that its capabilities can be restored," the group said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 2, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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