This special programme is timely as the United States is implemented new food safety regulations in keeping with its Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA), which was signed into law during January.

The new law seeks to ensure that food entering the United States is as safe as food produced in that country’s domestic market. It therefore covers the entire food supply chain including manufacturers, processors, packers and food distributors and gives the US Food and Drug Administration’s oversight on both domestic and imported food products. Four main aspects are addressed under the FSMA – prevention, enhanced partnerships, import safety, inspections, compliance and response.

Caribbean Export recognises that the FSMA will directly affect CARICOM-US trade. It is expected to have specific implications for small businesses that are interested in exporting to the United States in the medium to long term and has the potential to reduce the current level of the region’s agro-exports to that market.  CARICOM food exports to the United States were valued at EC$ 339.9 million in 2010, an increase from the EC $243 million recorded in 2006.

It is critical that the CARIFORUM agro-industry be fully aware of the new regulations and have the capacity to respond appropriately. Businesses in the regional agro-processing industry are therefore advised to start reviewing and upgrading their food safety systems otherwise they run the risk of losing their opportunity to market in the United States.

The United States considers improving food safety as a public health imperative given the fact that food borne illness affects one in every six Americans annually. In many parts of the world, food safety crises have undermined consumer confidence in the food regulatory system and has led to fears such as those related to terrorism, food contamination and product tampering. Consequentially, the global trend is pointing towards improved food safety standards – monitoring and preventative controls- similar to those now being implemented in the United States. Meeting high food safety standards is also important to the Caribbean given the integral part which food plays in the region’s vital tourism industry.

Many Caribbean companies are already meeting the United States standards and others are even fulfilling more stringent ones.  However, to get the entire industry ready, Caribbean Export has instituted the special programme.

With regards to the regulations under the FSMA, the FDA said sufficient time will be allowed for the implementation of regulations that will significantly impact the food industry and noted that it was common for regulations to become effective about twelve to 18 months after a regulation was finalized.  These timeframes, the FDA added, may be extended even further for small businesses, and on occasions the first year is considered “the educational phase” so discretional enforcement is usually used.

At least ten food safety mandates will be enforced. These include the foreign supplier verification programme which puts the onus on companies importing food into the US to verify that their foreign suppliers, which in region’s case are CARIFORUM suppliers, have measures in place to ensure safety. Importers will have to carry out risk-based verification checks to ensure that imported food is not adulterated or misbranded but is produced according to preventive control requirements and produce safety standards set by the FDA. In essence, the controls must provide the same level of protection as exist in the US market.

The FDA will accredit qualified third party auditors to certify that foreign food facilities are complying with US food safety standards.

Section 302 of the law speaks to a voluntary qualified importer programme that facilitates speedy review and entry of products from qualified imports received from facilities certified by an accredited third party.

The FDA has the authority to certify high-risk food imports and can use its discretion to require assurances of compliance for these foods. It is now working on defining and identifying high-risk foods.

Under Section 306 of the FSMA, the FDA is mandated to inspect foreign food facilities. Products of companies that refuse to allow these inspections will be denied entry into the United States.

The FDA will be increasing the number of inspections made in both domestic and foreign markets and will set up offices in foreign countries to deal with food safety measures for food to be exported into the US.

Minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables will be established by the FDA.  These will speak to soil amendments, worker’s health and hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, water.  Businesses will have to establish a written preventive control plan which will monitor controls and identify corrective actions to deal with problems.

The FDA will work with foreign governments to build food safety capacity.

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