The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has selected Costco Wholesale Corp. as the first participant in the agency’s Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP), a voluntary fee-based program that provides importers that achieve and maintain control over the safety and security of their supply chains faster reviews of their human and animal food imports into the United States.
VQIP was established as part of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), with participating vendors selected based on eligibility criteria concerning supply chain safety and importers responsible for a user fee that covers the FDA’s costs associated with the administration of the program.
The program is designed to benefit both consumers and importers. For example, Costco will now be able to import their products to the U.S. with greater speed and predictability, while avoiding unexpected delays at the point of import entry. Meanwhile, consumers will benefit from the wholesaler’s management of the safety and security of its supply chain.
“Costco has successfully demonstrated management of the safety and security of its supply chain, which will allow them to utilize VQIP to import certain food products into the U.S. with greater speed and predictability, avoiding unexpected delays at the point of import entry,” a spokesperson with the FDA, said.
Requirements for U.S. food importers include ensuring that the facilities of their foreign suppliers are certified through FDA’s Accredited Third-Party Certification Program, which is part of FSMA; running food safety audits; as well as other measures that support a high level of confidence in the safety and security of the food they import.
According to Robin Forgey, Costco’s director of food safety and quality assurance, the program allows Costco to get specific direct import goods to market faster by streamlining the customs process. “The VQIP process requires that the importer puts policies and procedures in place to ensure the safety of food along the entire supply chain,” she said. “These procedures include transportation security, monitoring, and communication about potential health hazards to the FDA, and procedures for corrective actions should nonconformities occur.”
According to a recent Costco earning report, the supply chain for the company’s international operations is designed around sourcing products locally and building relationships with local suppliers. This strategy reduces costs along the supply chain and creates a safer supply chain as well.
The FDA spokesperson noted that the agency anticipates VQIP will help reduce the potential for foodborne illnesses via imported foods. Considering approximately 48 million Americans become sick and nearly 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, this is of vast concern
The FDA has opened its VQIP application portal to U.S. food importers through May 31 to apply for the program’s benefits between Oct. 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021. Other importers interested in applying for VQIP status can submit a notice of intent to participate via the FDA Industry Systems website. Importers applying for the FY20 benefit period can also refer to the VQIP Portal User Guide as they prepare their applications.