The United States is focusing increasingly on the safety of its food supply and specif ical ly on food imports.

China is one of the main food importers into the United States, having more food facilities registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than even Canada or Mexico, so it is naturally a focus of the U.S. Government’s efforts. Over the past few years, some imports from China have been detained by the FDA. This is a real and growing issue for all countries that import foods into the United States.

The U.S. Government has numerous agencies that oversee imports into the country, but the chief regulatory body overseeing food safety (except with regard to meat) is the FDA. The FDA finalised in May 2009 a rule and compliance policy guide with regard to new requirements on food imported, or offered for import, into the United States. The rule requires that the FDA receive prior notice of the importation of food: a minimum of two hours for land arrival by road, four hours for arrival by air or rail, and eight hours for arrival by water. The rule also establishes maximum notice times, ranging from 15 to 30 days.

The rules become more complex when combined with the requirement for facilities to register with the FDA if they manufacture, process, pack or hold food for human or animal consumption in the United States. For example, food that is not in its natural state may not be imported into the United States unless the FDA receives the name of the manufacturer and either the registration number, city and country of the manufacturer, or the full address and the reason the registration number is not provided. The FDA’s list of acceptable reasons not to provide the registration number is very limited.

Failure to provide prior notice can result in the food being refused entry. If refused entry, the food will be held at the port of entry, unless the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) agrees that it may be exported under its supervision, or the food is directed to another location by the FDA or CBP. Additionally, the FDA can bring civil or criminal charges in federal court, or seek debarment of an importer. Importers should also note that if they attempt to bring in food articles from a food manufacturer that is not registered and therefore the importer cannot provide its registration number, entry may be refused on the grounds that the identity of the facility is incomplete. Clearly, it is important that importers make sure that they know who the manufacturer is and that they have registered.

Another source of potential confusion in processed food is the need to provide the FDA with the “country of production” of the food. Confusion arises because the CBP requires identif ication of the “country of origin” of the food. “Country of production” and “country of origin” are not the same. For example, if beans are grown in the United States, then sent to China and canned and exported back to the United States, the CBP “country of origin” is the United States, but the FDA “country of production” is China. This is because the FDA defines the “article of food” as canned beans.

These are just a few examples of the new rules. Because of China’s ever-increasing exports to the United States, it is important in particular for Chinese food manufacturers and exporters to remain well informed of the constantly changing landscape in this area.