In the wake of wide-ranging outbreaks of foodborne illness, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday finalized new rules to help keep contaminated food out of American kitchens.
These food safety regulations for fruit and vegetable farms and food importers were developed as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.
“These rules, for the first time, establish enforceable safety standards of production and harvesting of produce, and make importers accountable for the safety of the food they bring into the United States,” Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said during a Friday morning news conference.
This is the first time that produce farmers and food importers have fallen directly under FDA regulations, he said.
Taylor said that outbreaks caused by leafy greens, cantaloupes, cilantro and other produce underscore the need for the new requirements.
“A recent outbreak of salmonella in imported cucumbers killed four Americans and sent more than 157 to the hospital,” he said. “These outbreaks are just the kind of food safety problems today’s rules are meant to prevent.”
The establishment of regulations changes the FDA’s mission from reacting to outbreaks of foodborne illness to making the food industry responsible for preventing them, Taylor said.
The new farm rule sets requirements for water quality; employee health and hygiene; wild and domesticated animals; compost and manure; and equipment, tools and buildings, the FDA said.
Also, food importers must verify that foreign suppliers are producing foods that meet U.S. safety standards. And the suppliers’ facilities must achieve the same level of food safety as domestic farms and food facilities.
The FDA will also empower accredited independent auditors to conduct food safety inspections of foreign food facilities. In some cases, the FDA can require certification that imported food is safe.
To fund the agency’s expanded role, the budget currently before Congress requests an additional $109 million, Taylor said. “Without this money, implementation of these rules will be seriously interrupted and delayed,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that about 19 percent of the food eaten in the United States is imported. More than half of fresh fruits and 22 percent of fresh vegetables come from other countries, according to an FDA news release.
Two more rules will be finalized next year, Taylor said. One deals with food transportation and the other with intentional contamination of food, he said.
Each year some 48 million Americans—one in six—are sickened by foodborne diseases. About 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from contaminated food, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.