With rumors of new produce safety rules rolling out by early January, leaders of President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group highlighted federal advances on food safety issues in a Dec. 21 teleconference and progress report.

Top priorities

Implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act will be one of the agencies’ highest priorities in the next few years, the progress report for the food safety working group said. Work on regulations related to pre-harvest food safety, preventive control standards and retail food safety practices will be ramped up, FDA officials said.

In addition, the FDA plans to create regulations to make food importers clearly responsible for providing documented assurances that the food they import has been produced under the same prevention-oriented standards as domestic food.

“FDA will be able to verify the adequacy of the assurances by examining the importer’s records and selectively examining import shipments,” the report said.

The FDA said it would also establish — working with foreign governments — an accredited third-party certification program to confirm the adequacy of safety oversight and practices of foreign produce suppliers.

The U.S. will also work to implement a system to expedite food shipments for approved importers, the report said.

Traceability measures will also be considered. “FDA will consider information gathered through pilot tests of approaches to effective product tracing in other food categories, work with the food industry to foster innovative approaches to improve tracing, and improve its internal systems for tracing food products to their origin,” the report said.

Making strides

Leaders of the interagency group, established by President Obama in 2009 and headed by secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said in the progress report the effort has already made strides in helping to reduce foodborne illness.

The group has emphasized a three-tiered approach to food safety characterized by prevention, surveillance and response.

Industry benefits when federal agencies with food safety oversight work together, said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“It is critically important that all the agencies responsible for food safety in the U.S. including fresh produce safety, are working together towards a common goal,” he said Dec. 21.

Gombas said there is speculation that the FDA’s four fresh produce safety-related proposed regulations could be issued with a big media splash on Jan. 4.

More signs of progress

The progress report said one accomplishment of the FDA’s partnership with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service was the creation of a Produce Safety Alliance at Cornell University. That alliance is tasked with developing food safety training materials for growers. The report also highlighted outreach and education to consumers through the www.foodsafety.gov website.

Another step toward more accountability, group leaders said, was the FDA’s creation of a new position with food safety oversight, the office of the Deputy Commissioner for Foods.

More intensive engagement in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks is in FDA’s future, the report said.

“FDA has increased the number of domestic and foreign risk-based inspections it undertakes and is pursuing a comprehensive, farm-to-table strategy for preventing food safety problems,” the release said.