Modernizing Food Safety

September 5, 2013

FDA Proposes New Food Safety Rules

By Saad Anjum

In an effort to promote the safety of imported food, the FDA proposed new regulations for importers this past July as part of implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed by President Obama in January 2011. According to the FDA news release, the proposed regulations are a response to the modern global food system. The release also explains that imported food from 150 countries accounts for fifteen percent of the United States food supply.  Foodborne diseases cause approximately 48 million (or 1 in 6) Americans to get sick every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One of the two proposed rules holds importers accountable for ensuring foreign suppliers uphold the same food safety standards that US regulations require of domestic food producers, processors, and transporters – the most important actors in the food chain.

The second proposed rule amends regulations for third party auditors to receive accreditation.  Though the importers are not required to have recourse to third party auditors to inspect food, the proposed rule is designed to improve the food safety of imported foods through voluntary audits intended to make food companies and importers accountable for the safety of entire food supply chain.

Why hold the private sector responsible for performing quality control? The main drive behind reform is an increased focus on developing new strategies to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. This provides an adjunct to the FDA’s ever-decreasing inspection capabilities (currently only 1 – 2% of imported food is inspected) and the FDA’s capacity to respond to food safety problems once they occur.

Although all agree that the US food safety system is deficient, Yashar Saghai, MA, PhD, a fellow at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and director of the Global Food Ethics Project, explains that there are two major concerns about the proposed rules, one domestic, the other global.

The domestic concern is that the proposed rules may give importers a lot of discretion as to who conducts inspections and how these inspections are performed and monitored. Therefore, the food industry is essentially in charge of regulating itself. Dr. Saghai suggests that “unless importers are required to hire independent certified auditors, it is likely that some unscrupulous or careless importers will not conduct adequate inspections of their suppliers in order to increase, even marginally, their profits. Experience shows that even in medical research performed by health professionals who are expected to honor a code of ethics, it would be foolish to count on self-regulation. Why should we trust all food importers to implement best practices at the expense of their short-term financial interests?”

He continues, “If inspection by certified third party auditors is not mandated, along with increased FDA inspection capacities, it is far from clear that food imported to the US will be safer.  Besides, the extent to which food safety issues are caused by imported food and the type or origin of imported food that threatens public health is largely understudied.”

The scarce data we do have is from the CDC and is voluntarily reported from mostly state, local, territorial, or tribal health departments.  Recent estimates show from 2005-2010 2,348 illnesses were linked to imported foods from 15 countries.

According to Dr. Saghai, the global problem concerns the burdens placed on smallholders (producers who support a single family) given the cost of infrastructure, training, monitoring, and enforcement measures to upgrade the food safety standards of developing countries to US norms.

Dr. Saghai elaborates on the moral commitment to global food security, “The overarching moral goal of global food security is to make sure that everybody can afford safe and sufficient quantities of essential nutrients and calories by creating a food system that is sustainable and socially just. Social justice requires that the global food system wealthy nations design ought not generate or exacerbate disadvantages, especially in respect to their effects on poor farmers and farm workers in developing countries.”

He goes on to explain that the burdens imposed by higher safety standards for exported food might not honor the moral obligation to fairly ensure global food security. Smallholders along the food chain might lose their livelihood and independence if they cannot afford to accommodate the new requirements. Any increase in cost could undermine their livelihood, as the inability to comply with new rules would take smallholders out of business, benefiting only large farmers who have the financial capacity to adapt. Smallholders may survive either by pooling resources in cooperatives or by contracting with the larger agribusiness.

At a larger scale, in an effort to minimize costs, importers might decide to change supplier country. Low-income countries are much less likely to be able to meet US standards than middle-income countries that already have some of the necessary infrastructure and human capacities.

Dr. Saghai comments, “You cannot get fairly distributed development just based on trade rules designed by developed countries because many trade rules impose burdens on smallholders with weak bargaining power and clearly advantage businesses that already dominate the market.  Fairly designed trade rules require the affluent countries’ commit to mitigating the negative effects of their policies on the most disadvantaged populations abroad. The real question is who – the private sector or affluent governments and their agencies – should bear the cost of upgrading developing countries’ food safety systems if affluent consumers, mostly living in developed countries, are likely to benefit from new trade rules.”

The FDA has allowed three months for public comment on their proposed rules. The time to discuss these regulations will end on November 26th of this year. Let’s hope that the discussion will help lend an ethical perspective to the reform’s mandates.

Saad Anjum is a undergraduate bioethics intern for the Global Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and a writing seminars major at Johns Hopkins University.

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Global Food Ethics
Saad Anjum
Sara Glass
Yashar Saghai

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