During the past few weeks the USDA has announced determinations of equivalence in processing of poultry and bilateral trade agreements have been concluded with partners in NAFTA and with countries in Latin America and the People’s Republic of China. These initiatives presuppose importation of white meat either from independent suppliers or from US joint venture operations. The inevitability of importation should give rise to questions as to the current capability of the FDA and other government agencies to protect consumers. It must be remembered that imported products and similar domestic origin foods will be marketed on the same supermarket shelves or even co-mingled in manufacture. Assurances of safety and quality by respected government agencies are essential to maintaining consumer confidence.
An opinion article in the November 26th New York Times cites a Food Marketing Institute (FMI) study showing a decline in consumer confidence from 82 percent in 2006 to 66 percent, concerning the safety of imported foods. A new loophole in the surveillance of safety involves the relationship between U.S. laboratories conducting assays for wholesomeness and the importers submitting samples. Results are only remitted to the submitting company with no reporting of adverse findings to the FDA.
The FMI has historically provided valuable technical assistance to their 1,500 members responsible for the distribution and sale of both domestic and imported food products to consumers and the food service institutions. They have supported the Food and Drug Import Safety Bill (HR 3610) in addition to mounting an effective Safe Quality Food (SQF) private sector program promoting good manufacturing procedures. They have trained auditors and certified 9,000 establishments in the USA and 20 other nations.
Despite these worthy initiatives by the FMI, their response to some key provisions of the proposed legislation as presented to the House Energy and Commerce, Health Subcommittee could be interpreted as benign self interest. The FMI does not support outright mandatory recall authority for the FDA. The Institute does not advocate the application of available rapid microbiological and chemical assays for routine preliminary screening of imported products. The FMI opposes Country of Origin Labeling as being “unworkable and costly” according to their website, www.fmi.org.It would appear reasonable that FDA should recognize their obligation to call for and support legislation to protect consumers from potentially adulterated, mislabeled or potentially injurious imported food products. The provisions of (HR 3610) are logical, reasonable and in the long term will serve the interests of US producers and consumers. If the FDA cannot develop programs and request funding to fulfill their mission it would be appropriate for Congress to consider alternatives such as a unified Food Safety Agency as proposed in HR 1148 and S 654.