Grocery Manufacturers Request Regulation

Like microwave-popcorn manufacturers and toy companies, members of the trade group Grocery Manufacturers of America have recognized that it’s not a good thing to have consumers worried about whether their favorite products might kill them. So, they’re asking the FDA to do more to ensure the safety of foods and beverages, and have come out with a specific proposal “to improve the safety of our food imports.” (Domestic foods evidently get a pass for now, despite the E. coli problem.)

As David Michaels pointed out earlier this week, this sudden affinity for regulation isn’t just about shoring up consumer confidence. Industry groups are pushing for relatively weak regulation in an apparent attempt to stave off more stringent rules from the state or local level, and to guard against lawsuits. As one might expect, GMA’s food safety proposal is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go as far as food-safety advocates might wish.

GMA’s proposal is entitled “A Commitment to Consumers to Ensure the Safety of Imported Foods: Four Pillars of Public-Private Partnership.” For importers, it proposes a supplier-quality assurance program, under which importers set up programs and practices to ensure that the foods they’re bringing in meet FDA standards, and a voluntary importer program, in which importers able and willing to meet additional standards get expedited entry at the border. For the FDA, it suggests the agency work with foreign governments “to expand training, accelerate the development of laboratories, ensure the compliance of exports with US regulations, permit appropriate FDA inspections of foreign facilities, and to ensure adequate access to data and test results conducted abroad.” It also suggests expanding FDA’s capacity and giving it more resources.

Most of us (except for those who are more frightened of big government than of tainted food) can agree that the FDA needs more resources. The question is, how much authority should it have?

The Washington Post’s Renae Merle explains that the GMA plan would give the FDA the power to enforce supplier-quality assurance plans, which are currently required but not under FDA’s authority. The plan does not give the FDA authority to mandate recalls; this, along with country-of-origin labeling, is something that Consumers’ Union has been pushing for.

Comments

  1. #1 Shefaly
    September 20, 2007

    This is a very interesting shift.

    In the EC, the threat of regulation alone has made some food manufacturers and distrubutors jump through many hoops voluntarily, but arguably those incidents relate to food composition (such as salt and fat content) and not to food safety considerations.

    Food safety as you point out is a function of enforcement, and hence of resources. The mad cow crisis in the UK is a good example of how good regulation but poor enforcement can be very bad indeed.

    Could it be that the GMA is playing a double-bluff game?

    They ask for regulation; they get it; FDA gets responsibility for enforcement but does not have enough resources; next failure, FDA not the food industry gets blame.

    Thanks.

  2. #2 Liz
    September 20, 2007

    Interesting question, Shefaly. I’m sure the GMA would rather that the FDA get blamed for future tainted food problems, and I don’t expect them to push too hard for extra FDA funding if Congress doesn’t seem inclined to provide it.

    On the other hand, it really is in food companies’ best interests to keep their products safe, and those who are investing the money to do so want to make their competitors do the same. And, really, the only way to ensure that all companies are taking the necessary steps is to have enough inspectors to fine and catch those who aren’t.