Five consumer groups have criticized FDA for narrowing its authority to require accredited laboratory testing under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in a proposed rule outlined late last year.
The rule would establish a laboratory accreditation program for the testing of human and animal food in certain circumstances by accredited laboratories. In a letter addressed to FDA, the groups, comprised of the Center for Food Safety, Consumer Reports, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food & Water Action, and the Consumer Federation of America, noted that, while they were pleased that this long-overdue rule would improve the reliability of import testing, the requirements for accredited testing were not enough. The groups are concerned that the agency has construed its authority too narrowly, requiring accredited testing only in a few circumstances outside the context of food imports.
“[The proposed rule] falls well short of what congress intended by leaving out much of the important food safety testing carried out on foods produced domestically,” Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells Food Quality & Safety. “For foods that are not imported, the rule will require accredited testing only for tests submitted in formal proceedings, or for narrow specific rules covering shell eggs, bottled water, and sprouts. That means other testing done to verify food safety can still be performed by non-accredited labs.”
The letter urges FDA to extend the rule to cover all food safety testing to comply with food safety requirements. “At a minimum, this would include testing that is used to verify the effectiveness of food safety controls or corrective actions to fix problems that are identified during inspections or audits,” Sorscher says. “You hope that companies will still do the right thing and use accredited laboratories, even if the rule doesn’t require it.”
The organizations’ comment cites one example where a Georgia egg facility turned to private testing after FDA identified Listeria during an inspection. The private samples came up negative; however, the facility was ultimately unsuccessful in getting rid of the Listeria because there was another cluster of cases a few months later linked to the same plant, and one person died.
“We don’t know if the private lab they used was accredited because they haven’t shared the name, but, certainly, the episode demonstrates that it’s important for food safety testing to be reliable; if the company makes a mistake and misses a problem, that’s someone’s life on the line,” Sorscher says. “Yet, under the proposed rule, this sort of testing used to verify the effectiveness of food safety controls at American facilities would not be covered. The rule covers some limited testing for shell eggs, but it’s specific to Salmonella enteritidis, not Listeria.”
The comment period for the proposed rule closed on July 6, 2020.