SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Attendees of the Texas Produce Convention received plenty of information about the new Food Safety Modernization Act, but it pretty much boiled down this: importers will be responsible for ensuring their produce is just as safe as domestic fruits and vegetables.
The convention, Aug. 17-19, featured several sessions on food safety, with panelists from retail, industry commodity boards, government and grower-shipper backgrounds.
“In the past if you had a food safety problem, what generally happened was (Food and Drug Administration officials) jumped on it, (then) they determined what the cause was hopefully and the industry responded to what the FDA had determined,” said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission.
“The responsibility is being shifted to the industry,” McClung said. “It is no longer going to be an emphasis on responding — it’s going to be an emphasis on preventing.”
The FDA has about two dozen working groups focused on the Act, said Catherine Vieweg, director of compliance for the FDA’s Southwest Import District, which oversees 40% of all imports into the U.S.
Throughout her presentation on the food safety act, Vieweg stressed the “Herculean effort” Congress gave the FDA in bringing the act to life.
“Congress has been very clear. It expects the FDA to change the way we do things,” she said.
That includes working with third-party certifiers, foreign governments and state/local/federal health agencies. Without extra resources to pay for extra personnel in foreign countries, the FDA might cede responsibilities — if those countries have shown they can handle that responsibility.
The FDA has been tasked with doubling the number of foreign facility inspections for the next five years. That means 300 inspections this year, an achievable target, Vieweg said.
“We believe we can hit next year’s numbers, but we’ll be pushing it after that,” she said. “Under our traditional version of foreign inspections, there is no way we can do that. We need to be creative about how we can meet the intent (of the act) without merely increasing those numbers.”
Even though Vieweg said there’s a “disconnect” between what Congress put into law and the funds to do so, she made it clear: Changes will be made, and it’s up to the industry to comply.