FSIS Proposes New Procedures to Improve Traceability

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a notice announcing new procedures that it intends to implement when FSIS or other Federal or State agencies find a presumptive positive for Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 in raw ground beef. The impetus behind these new procedures was to improve the agency’s ability to trace contaminated food products in the supply chain, to act against contaminated foods sooner, and to better protect consumers from foodborne illness in meat and poultry products.

FSIS is proposing to launch traceback investigations sooner and pinpoint additional potentially contaminated product when the agency finds E. coli O157:H7 through its routine sampling program.

In the event that FSIS detects a presumptive positive test result for E. coli, the agency will identify the supplier of the product and any processors who received contaminated product from the supplier, once confirmation is received. According to FSIS representatives, this proposed change in policy gives FSIS the opportunity to better prevent contaminated product from reaching consumers.

Under FSIS’s current traceback policy, the agency does not begin conducting any investigations or follow up activities until positive results based on FSIS testing are identified or until outbreaks occur.

According to USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen:

The additional safeguards we are announcing today will improve our ability to prevent foodborne illness by strengthening our food safety infrastructure. Together, these measures will provide us with more tools to protect our food supply, resulting in stronger public health protections for consumers.

She added, “We will be acting at the presumptive stage,” The new procedures are expected to expedite the investigation of E. coli contamination by a day or two. “When we’re talking about traceback, every minute counts,” said Hagen.

The agency is inviting any interested person to submit comments on this notice by mail or electronically at http://www.regulations.gov. FSIS is requesting that comments on the proposed policies and procedures be submitted by July 6, 2012.

Food Safety Legislation Back from the Dead

On Friday, S. 510, the food safety bill, was declared dead. Last nite (Sunday), the Associated Press reported the bill may finally pass in the final hours of the 111th Congress. The New York Times report can be linked here. The text of what I understand will be headed to a final vote in the House on Tuesday and signed into law by the President can be linked here.

We'll have more analysis in the days to come. Here's a preview of how the FDA's new mandatory recall power may play out.

Senate Passes Food Safety Legislation, Will It Become Law?

Today, the United States Senate passed the food safety bill, S. 510. If this were to become law (and according to the New York Times , this is a big if), the legislation would impose the most sweeping changes to food regulation in decades.

Among many other things, the bill would allow the FDA to order mandatory recalls, impose new record keeping requirements on businesses and establish stricter import standards. As a consequence, virtually every FDA regulated food manufacturer would have to adjust its approach to food safety, record keeping, supply-chain contracting and government relations. If this legislation becomes law, stay tuned here for in-depth analysis.

Jim Prevor's Traceability Answers

We recently asked for comments on Jim Prevor's story about traceability.  While there was a loud silence in our comments in box (still happy to take them), today we got a long response from Jim himself in his latest Perishable Pundit.  I commend it to you.  And feel free to comment to Jim directly or, of course, right here.

Comment On Recent New York Times E. Coli and Beef Article: How Retailers Can Protect Themselves

Co-Authored By Guest Blogger Scott Hansen

According to its website, last Sunday’s New York Times article on E. coli and beef is among the most widely read pieces published by the newspaper this week. The article tells the story of a 22-year-old Minnesota dance instructor who was left paralyzed after being infected with a strain of E. coli in an “Angus Beef Pattie” she ate in fall of 2007. The article traces the story of her burger, points out the many limitations in the current system, and calls eating beef a “gamble.”

While the article is clearly targeted at meat producers and processors, food retailers selling beef products, such as grocery stores and restaurants, are also at risk. This piece is a reminder of the need for retailers to take steps to ensure proper systems and procedures for tracing food to its source (according to yesterday's statement by Secretary Vilsack, retail traceability of ground beef is soon to be a USDA requirement). The Times lauds Costco, which it says is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding.

Retailers should also be mindful of the utility of supplier agreements sufficiently tailored to limit liability or to procure insurance coverage. The greater protections afforded by well-drafted supplier agreements and carefully placed insurance are the best way to mitigate exposure.

Some may choose strong indemnification provisions and additional insured provisions. Another route, not yet the prevailing trend in the industry but perhaps in the near future, involves wrap-up insurance covering the entire supply chain, accompanied by covenants of cooperation between members of the supply chain.

Wrap-up insurance/covenants of cooperation approach has the advantage of potentially avoiding expensive and reputation-damaging litigation between members of the supply chain. Wrap-up insurance is also more likely to result in sufficient coverage to protect the retailer or restaurant chain.

No matter the path chosen, thoughtful placement of insurance coverage and confidence in supply chain contracts can help a food company weather the storm of a food-borne illness outbreak.

After Second Try, House Passes Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 2749)

U.S. House of Representatives approved HR 2749 moments ago. This action followed some confusion yesterday where it was brought to the floor needing a 2/3 vote and failed. Here’s a link to a report by the Rules Committee including the language of the bill as approved today by the House. Changes to the bill from what was proposed by the Energy and Commerce Committee include amendments aimed at concerns by smaller farmers of the $500 “facility registration fee,” performance standards and record keeping.

The legislation has been the subject of heavy debate inside and outside the beltway. Here’s a link to the Editorial in the New York Times in support of the bill. The Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA) also has expressed support in a June press release for the bill as marked-up by the Energy and Commerce Committee. From some opposed to the bill, here’s a link with an impassioned argument from yesterday.

Note that the registration requirements in the bill as currently written “does not include farms; private residences of individuals, restaurants, other retail food establishments; nonprofit food establishments in which food is prepared for or served directly to the consumer.”

The bill further exempts from registration farms that sell food primarily at farmers markets. Also exempts farms that “manufacturer grains or other feed stuffs” grown on those farms and distributed to other farms for “consumption as food by humans or animals on such farm.”

Also note that traceability provisions remain. Section 107(c)(2) recognizes that work remains on the regulatory level for FDA to collect information, and develop technology and systems, and establish pilot programs before traceability becomes a reality.

Food Safety Legislation Proposed by House - User Fees and Traceability Are Among Highlights

Last week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce released a discussion draft of the “Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.”
 

The draft proposes beefing up the FDA registry of “all food facilities serving American consumers” and charging every facility $1,000 per year to fund FDA food safety activities. The new legislation would expand the types of facilities that need to register by eliminating certain exemptions from the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, though for now it appears to maintain exemptions for retailers, restaurants, farmers and nonprofits.
 

The proposal’s most ambitious and controversial proposal may be traceability.

The draft legislation proposes to require FDA to “by regulation establish a tracing system for food that is located in the United States or is for import into the United States.” The legislation gives the FDA few specifics other than to “maintain the full pedigree of the origin and previous distribution history of food,” “link that history with subsequent history,” “establish and maintain a system for tracing food that is interoperable with the systems established and maintained by other such persons” and “use a unique identifier for each facility.” No doubt the devil will be in the details.

Verbatim, here is the Summary of Discussion Draft of The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009:

1. Creates an up-to-date registry of all food facilities serving American consumers: Requires all facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to register with the FDA annually.

2. Generates resources to support FDA oversight of food safety: Requires registered facilities to pay an annual registration fee of $1,000 in order to generate revenue for food safety activities at the FDA; requires registered facilities to pay for FDA’s costs associated with reinspections and food recalls; allows FDA to charge a fee to domestic firms requesting export certificates for exported food.

3. Prevents food safety problems before they occur: Requires all facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to implement safety plans that identify and protect against food hazards. FDA would have the authority to specify minimum food safety plan requirements and to audit food safety plans.

4. Requires safety plans for fresh produce: Directs FDA to issue regulations for ensuring the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.

5. Increases inspections of food facilities: Sets a minimum inspection frequency for all registered facilities. High-risk facilities would be inspected at least once every six to 18 months; low risk facilities would be inspected at least once every 18 months to three years; and warehouses that store food would be inspected at least once every three to four years. Refusing, impeding, or delaying an inspection is prohibited.

6. Improves traceability of food: Enhances FDA’s ability to trace the origin of tainted food in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness. FDA would be required to issue regulations that require food producers, manufacturers, processors, transporters, or holders to maintain the full pedigree of the origin and previous distribution history of the food and to link that history with the subsequent distribution history of the food; and to establish an interoperable record to ensure fast and efficient traceback (current law permits facilities to hold a record in any format — paper or electronic — making efficient tracing of foods difficult for FDA). Prior to issuing such regulations, FDA would be required to conduct a feasibility study, public meetings, and a pilot project.

7. Enhances the safety of imported food: As an additional layer of protection, FDA can require food to be certified as meeting all U.S. food safety requirements by the government of the country from which the article originated or by certain qualified third parties. Third party certifying entities must meet strict requirements to protect against conflicts of interest with the firm seeking certification.

8. Expands laboratory testing capacity: Requires FDA to establish a program to recognize laboratory accreditation bodies and to accept test results only from duly accredited laboratories. Gives FDA the ability to require laboratories to send test results to FDA.

9. Provides strong, flexible enforcement tools: Provides FDA new authority to issue mandatory recalls of tainted foods. Strengthens criminal penalties and establishes civil monetary penalties that FDA may impose on food facilities that fail to comply with safety requirements.

10. Creates fast-track import process for food meeting security standards: Permits FDA to develop voluntary security guidelines for imported foods. Importers meeting the guidelines would receive expedited processing.

11. Enhances the safety of infant formula: Enhances FDA’s ability to assure the safety of new infant formulas before they go on the market.

12. Advances the science of food safety: Directs the Secretary to include food in an active surveillance system to assess more accurately the frequency and sources of human illness. The Secretary is also directed to identify industry and regulatory approaches to minimize hazards in the food supply.

13. Enhances FDA’s ability to block unsafe food from entering the food supply: Strengthens FDA’s authority to administratively detain unsafe food products. Grants FDA “quarantine” authority under which the agency may restrict or prohibit the movement of unsafe food products from a particular geographic area.

14. Directs FDA to assess the use of carbon monoxide in certain foods: Requires FDA to conduct a safety review of the use of carbon monoxide in meat, poultry, and seafood products.

15. Enhances transparency of GRAS program: Requires posting on FDA’s website of documentation submitted to FDA in support of a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) notification.

16. Requires country-of-origin labeling and disclosure: Requires all processed food labels to indicate the country in which final processing occurred. Requires food manufacturers to identify the country of origin for all ingredients on their websites. Requires country-of-origin labeling for all produce.

General Provisions

1. Creates an up-to-date registry of importers: Requires all importers of drugs, devices, and foods to register with the FDA annually and to pay a registration fee.

2. Requires unique identification numbers for facilities and importers: To enhance information about FDA-regulated entities, creates unique identification numbers for all drug, device, and food facilities and importers.

3. Creates a dedicated foreign inspectorate: Requires FDA to establish and maintain a corps of inspectors to monitor foreign facilities producing food, drugs, devices, and cosmetics for American consumers.

4. Grants FDA new authority to subpoena records related to possible violations.

5. Provides protection for whistleblowers that bring attention to important safety information: Prohibits entities regulated by the FDA from discriminating against an employee in retaliation for assisting in any investigation regarding any conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes a violation of federal law.