On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act into law. Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, noted in a recent talk to the FDLI Food Safety Conference that this is the first major “top to bottom” overhaul of U.S. food safety laws in 70 years, and it represents a paradigm shift from reacting to food safety problems after they occur to more actively preventing food-borne illness in the first instance.

The new law places more responsibility for prevention of food-borne illness on importers and producers. For example, domestic food facilities must:

  • have written plans that provide an assessment of the possible problems that could affect the safety of the food produced,
  • implement and monitor its identified strategies for preventing food safety problems, and
  • have a plan in place to react to any problems that occur.

The Deputy Commissioner for Foods also noted that “strengthening of the importer’s responsibility for food safety is the centerpiece of the new law’s import safety reform….” Importers are held more accountable for the products they bring in to the country: An importer must undertake foreign supplier verification activities to insure that foreign food suppliers have the same level of risk-based prevention measures as are present in domestic food suppliers. This is a significant change — in the past, the importer role was mainly logistical.

While domestic food suppliers and importers of foreign foods are held to greater responsibility, the FDA is also quick to point out that this is not the only measure to insure greater food safety (PDF). For example, the new law gives the FDA the authority to initiate recalls of tainted food products rather than simply requesting that suppliers comply with its recommendation for a voluntary food recall, and it gives the FDA greater authority to mandate more frequent inspections of food production facilities both domestically and abroad.

One question that consistently appears among food industry commentators relates to the practical implementation of the more aggressive inspection schedule of both domestic and foreign food suppliers. Inspection is a critical aspect to this law, as it is intended to insure that food importers and suppliers are indeed complying with the law. However, the FDA recognizes that its ability to conduct inspections is limited by the funding it receives each year, and thus the number of full-time employees it can maintain. The FDA will undoubtedly face challenges as it attempts to prioritize use of its limited resources.