(April 3, 5:30 p.m.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking a closer look at third-party certification programs because inspectors from those private companies, along with federal, state and even foreign governmental inspectors, will help enforce food safety laws in the future.

The agency is seeking comments on the use of private companies for inspections until May 19 “to better understand how they can help to ensure that food products are safe, secure, and meet FDA requirements.”

According to an April 2 notice in the Federal Register notice, increasing numbers of retailers and foodservice suppliers are asking for their foreign and domestic suppliers to meet third-party certification. What’s more, domestic and foreign suppliers are also looking to third parties to assist them in meeting U.S. requirements.

The Global Food Safety Initiative requires food suppliers to have a factory audit certification against internationally recognized standards, which include the British Retail Consortium, International Food Standard, and GlobalGAP, according to the notice.

In November, President Bush’s Interagency Working Group on Import Safety released a plan with 14 broad recommendations and 50 specific short and long term steps to better protect U.S. consumers.

One of the recommendations in the action plan is to “verify compliance of foreign producers with United States safety and security standards through certification,” the notice said.

Third-party certification can help the FDA and the importing community’s ability to make sure imported foods meet U.S. safety and security standards, the Federal Register notice said.

“Although certification by an independent third party would not replace an FDA inspection, and FDA would continue to inspect a firm itself, as appropriate based on risk, third-party certification could provide additional assurances of safety,” according to the Federal Register notice.

The Food Protection Plan previously said third party certifiers could include private companies without a financial conflict of interest. The FDA also said in the Federal Register notice that “eligible third parties” should include other federal government, state government, and foreign government agencies and officials.

Including qualified private companies as third-party inspectors would provide the industry with greater flexibility, said Robert Whitaker, chief scientific officer of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

Robert Keeney, deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service’s fruit and vegetable programs, said he believes the FDA will approach the USDA for possible third-party inspection services.

“They are certainly aware of our nationwide system. I don’t see any reason why they would not utilize us for that,” he said.

Based on its Import Action Plan, the FDA indicated it likely would accredit independent third party inspectors, directly or indirectly, to evaluate compliance with FDA requirements.

The FDA asked for stakeholder input on these questions:

  • What domestic and foreign third-party certification programs for suppliers are currently in use by U.S. companies?

  • Do the current third-party certification programs ensure compliance with FDA requirements?

  • What are the obstacles to private sector participation in these third-party certification programs?

  • What incentives would increase participation in these third-party certification programs?