ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Don’t Let Food Safety Get Lost in Translation

Last year, millions of Americans looked to the nation’s capital for the latest news on pending healthcare legislation, while other bills that are critical to our nation’s health and well-being worked their way through Congress virtually unnoticed. The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 passed in the House, and the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) is coming up for debate in the Senate in early 2010. These bills represent the first comprehensive overhaul of American food safety laws in decades. Eliminating foodborne illness could save an estimated 5,000 lives, avoid 325,000 hospitalizations, and prevent millions of food-related illnesses each year. According to the USDA, foodborne illness represents an economic cost of about $5.6 billion annually.

But, as important as these bills are, those in the food industry know that food safety does not stop at national borders. More and more of the foods we package, transport, and prepare for our customers originate outside the United States. In 1998, the United States imported $41 billion in food products. By 2007, this number had grown to $78 billion worth of food coming into the country through 300 ports of entry. Approximately 15% of our nation’s total food supply is imported. And imports account for 50% to 60% of fresh fruits and fish, according to the latest U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates. Assuring the safety of our international food supply is as critical to Americans as assuring the safety of domestically grown foods.

Currently, the FDA inspects roughly 1% of imported foods. And, as our imports increase, so do the number of Class I recalls. These numbers will only continue to rise.

Because our industry relies heavily on international trade partners for food products, it is essential to think and act globally to address food safety concerns. From Chile to Chicago, from Indiana to India, and from California to Canada, food safety must be the priority of all growers, processors, packers, distributors, and food service establishments. Fortunately, efforts are underway to get us where we need to be.

 

From Chile to Chicago, from Indiana to India, and from California to Canada, food safety must be the priority of all growers, processors, packers, distributors, and food service establishments.

The Food Safety Modernization Act requires the development of regulations to assure the safety and quality of foods entering the United States. This is an important step. All food industry sectors should take an active role in developing these regulations, with a special focus on harmonizing domestic and foreign regulations to create an effective set of global standards and controls. Developing a set of food safety standards that would comply with the standards of the U.S. as well as other developed nations would improve the safety of imported food and support world trade.

International Action

As Americans, we tend to believe that the United States’ food supply is safer than that of other countries. While we might have one of the safest food supplies in the world, administration of our safety checks and balances is decentralized. In the United States, more than 15 federal agencies, along with their counterparts at the state level, enforce food safety laws. Efforts have been made to improve coordination among these groups, but there are still challenges to be overcome.

U.S. Foodservice and other leading companies in the United States have joined food companies worldwide in the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) and GLOBALGAP (see sidebar, “GLOBALGAP and GFSI Defined”). Together, we are using internationally recognized accreditation and certification processes to certify food suppliers around the world in the latest food safety standards.

The goal of these organizations is to make the most up-to-date food safety standards and protection methods as global as our food supply. The approach is to create a dynamic system that can proactively set and validate the safety of food from the moment it is caught or farmed through processing, packaging, and distribution until it is prepared and consumed. Standards are met from boat to throat, or from farm to fork, regardless of where the food was caught, grown, or processed.

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