If you import food into the United States then you are familiar with the headaches and hassles that go along with this burdensome regulatory process. But that may change with the release of the draft guidance that outlines FDA’s plan to implement the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program ("VQIP") mandated under the Food Safety Modernization Act. The VQIP is a voluntary, fee-based program for the expedited review and importation of foods from importers who achieve and maintain a high level of control over the safety and security of their supply chains. 

The new draft guidance lays out the various benefits in addition to expedited entry that an importer can expect to receive from participating in VQIP, including limiting examination and/or sampling of VQIP food entries to “for cause” situations. Additionally, participants in the VQIP will have access to the VQIP Importers Help Desk, which will be dedicated to responding to questions and concerns of VQIP importers. 

The draft guidance lays out the eligibility for participating in the program, which includes: (a) 3-year history of importing food into the U.S.; (b) do not import food subject to an import alert or Class 1 recall; (c) have a current facility certification for each foreign supplier of food intended to be imported under VQIP; and (d) be in compliance with Foreign Supplier Verification Program requirements and applicable seafood and juice HACCP regulations.  

Participation in the VQIP is for the U.S. fiscal year, which begins on October 1st each year. Applications to participate in VQIP will need to be submitted electronically through the FDA’s industry portal between January 1st and May 31st before the fiscal year in which the importer seeks to join the program. FDA has indicated that due to resource constraints, it will limit the number of participants in the first year to 200 at the most. Participation must be renewed annually, and participants will be subject to FDA inspection. 

If your company is considering participating in the VQIP program, carefully review the draft guidance as the FDA will only accept comments on until August 4, 2015.