For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has recognized a foreign food safety systems as comparable to the U.S.

The FDA announced Dec. 10 that the agency and New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries signed an agreement of mutual recognition of each other’s food safety systems. The deal should provide a higher level of regulatory cooperation to improve food safety while boosting trade between the two countries, the FDA said in the news release.

Systems recognition, previously referred to by the agency as “comparability,” involves reviewing a foreign country’s food safety regulatory system to determine if it provides a similar set of protections to that of FDA, according to the release.

Outcomes of these reviews, the agency said, may be used by FDA to make risk-based decisions regarding foreign inspections, admitting product into the U.S. and follow-up actions when food safety incidents occur.

The FDA conducted a systems recognition process called the draft International Comparability Assessment Tool, which helps regulators review a country’s regulations, inspection programs, response to food-related illness and outbreaks, compliance and enforcement and laboratory support, according to the release.

However, the FDA said the systems recognition is voluntary and not required for a country to export food to the U.S. The FDA noted that any country can request a systems recognition determination and the agency is now conducting a pilot systems recognition process with Canada.

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, said he was glad to see New Zealand recognized and expects the U.S. also will recognize Canada.

“It has always been FDA’s intention to identify or recognize regulatory partners they have in other countries, and thereby reduce duplication of efforts,” he said.

However, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on Dec. 13 urged the Obama administration to go slow with any food safety agreement with Canada, stating that the details of the Regulatory Cooperation Council and Beyond the Border initiatives are being negotiated between the two governments.

She warned that making it easier for Canadian products to bypass traditional safeguards could put U.S. consumers at risk.