With nearly 15% of the food supply in the United States imported from abroad, it is clear to see that food has become an increasingly globalized commodity. As the purveyor and teeth behind standardized food regulation and policy, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) has attempted to implement a laundry list of regulatory standards in an effort to protect consumers in the face of unequal health and safety standards from foreign suppliers. Yet, despite these regulations, the FDA, citing a lack of cooperation from foreign partners, has only managed to inspect about 1-2% of all imports at U.S. ports and borders.
In 2010, Congress recognized the need for enhanced safety standards and administered the Food and Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The act was meant to shift the focus from response to prevention by allowing the FDA to essentially police how food is grown, harvested, and processed by domestic importers. Considered to be the first major food safety act since 1938, FSMA granted the FDA this new jurisdiction in response to an unprecedented outbreak of food-born illnesses in the 2000s, which cost the food industry billions in litigations, losses, and recalls.
Since its legal debut in 2010, many regulators have yet to see any real decline in food-born illnesses as a result of FSMA. The Obama administration has came under direct criticism for taking a seemingly lackluster approach to enforcing the newly granted powers accompanying the legislation. Senior administrators and many within the FDA, however, have pointed the finger directly at Congress, which has allegedly developed a habit of cutting funds needed for the implementation of FSMA.
In 2012, the Center for Food Safety along with the Center for Environmental Health filed a joint lawsuit against the FDA, maintaining that the FDA “had missed not one, not two, but seven critical deadlines” regarding the implementation of important regulations. In settling the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton ordered the FDA to work with the CFS and CEH in establishing a concrete timeline regarding the rollout of FSMA. Since the courts ruling, FSMA has increased efforts to impose more comprehensive regulatory standards on foreign imports. New amendments will subject imported foods to the same health standards as those produced domestically.
The FDA’s plight in establishing a global standard has highlighted the difficulty felt by many countries in setting comprehensive standards for imported, exported, and domestic products. Yet, the FDA’s plan of tasking a coalition of international inspectors with examining every farm producing goods destined for the U.S. is simply impractical. It is impossible to view this as a reasonable proposal given the sheer size of U.S food supplies and suppliers. Can the FDA really get enough boots on the ground and still ensure the same high-level inspection at each location?
While it is true that foreign imports now face enhanced scrutiny by both the FDA and domestic importers—such as mandatory audits at U.S. boarders and ports—the cost of these regulations is particularly acute given recent budget cuts. Is there a way to ensure that safety standards are compatible with a constrained budget? Under the Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2014, the FDA could see an 8% increase in funding to $4.7 billion. Yet this increase may fall through depending on whether a Republican Congress chooses to adhere to that level of funding and tax revenue allotment to the FDA.
The “X” factor that the FDA needs is a credible assurance that foreign suppliers will self-inspect. Unfortunately, random inspections and annual standard reviews can only do so much to ensure accountability. Until Congress passes a budget that allows the FDA to carry out widespread, annual inspections, the FDA won’t be able to do much better than that.
Image Attribution: “Sugarcane Ethanol” by Sweeter Alternative, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0