The new rules require importers to show that the food they bring into the United States meets U.S. safety standards.
WASHINGTON — Five years after Congress passed a landmark law meant to prevent the importation of contaminated food, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday made final new rules that for the first time put the main responsibility on companies for policing the food they import. The rules also include new safety standards for produce grown on U.S. farms.
The new rules require importers to show that the food they bring into the United States meets U.S. safety standards. They would do that by hiring third-party auditors to check the safety of the food in foreign facilities, a system that some consumer advocates had cautioned might give companies too much discretion but that federal officials say is the standard for the food industry and will be brought under the spotlight of federal oversight.
“This the first time the food importers have fallen directly under FDA regulation,” said Michael Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. He cited the recent outbreak of salmonella in imported cucumbers that killed four Americans and hospitalized more than 150 as a prime example of what the rule is intended to prevent.
There have been many other outbreaks linked to produce in recent years. In 2006, E. coli in fresh spinach was linked to several deaths, including a 2-year-old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) later issued a report saying the cause may have been contaminated irrigation water.
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A 2011 outbreak of listeria linked to cantaloupes killed 33 people. After outbreaks of cyclospora illnesses linked to imported cilantro, American investigators found toilet paper and human feces in Mexican fields where cilantro is grown.
The FDA has haggled over how to write the rules, which will phase in over the next several years, since Congress approved them in 2010.
The safety of the food supply — foreign and domestic — is a critical public-health issue. One in every 6 Americans becomes ill from eating contaminated food each year, according to the FDA. About 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
The produce rule sets standards for growing, harvesting, packing and storing produce on farms in the United States. It includes requirements for water quality, employee health and hygiene, and manure and compost use.
Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said the rule means that “for the first time, we have nationwide enforceable safety standards for fruits and vegetables consumed raw.”
The rules were broadly praised by consumer advocates and industry as a substantial advance in food safety. The U.S. food supply is increasingly globalized. In 2013, the Department of Agriculture estimated imported food accounted for 19 percent of the U.S. food supply, including 52 percent of the fresh fruits and 22 percent of the fresh vegetables. Given these changes, the old food-safety system was outdated, officials said. The FDA tries to keep tabs on imports, but it inspects only 1 to 2 percent of imports at U.S. ports and borders.
The FDA cannot regulate what happens on foreign farms, but it can require that food importers verify that their suppliers are making and growing food that meets U.S. safety standards. The rules establish a system of third-party auditors, which an importer would hire to inspect a supplier’s facility, for example, or sample or test food made there.