NRA 2011: Food safety legislation on the horizon

May 30, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso
NRA 2011: Food safety legislation on the horizon

As operations scramble to comply with the sweeping nutritional menu labeling laws that are part of the health care reform bill passed in 2010, another smaller bill was passed more recently that also affects the foodservice industry.

The FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama in January, and entails the broadest changes to food safety laws since 1938. The act has smaller implications than menu labeling, but is expected to have a broad impact on restaurants that import food, as well as those that offer locally-grown produce.

The impetus behind the legislation and its affects on restaurant operations were discussed at the National Restaurant Association Show session May 22 in Chicago. Panelists Catherine Adams Hutt, PhD, RD, from RdR Solutions Consulting; David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council (IFIC); and Dr. Steven Lyon, food and product safety department at Chick-fil-A, said that now is the time to get ready for the FSMA, which is expected to be fully implemented by the end of 2012.

The FSMA and foreign suppliers

Signed into law on Jan. 4, 2011 the law creates new responsibilities for both operators and suppliers and the potential for increased fees if compliance isn't met. Operators should run a full assessment of their suppliers' certifications and facilities before the legislation is fully enacted.

Supplier facilities will be required to have food safety plans and preventative controls in place, as well as access to records in case of any event. Additionally, there is a biannual facility registration process – as opposed to the one-time registration requirement that is currently in place.

Operators who import food will likely experience the biggest impact from the new legislation. Their foreign suppliers will now be required to follow the same guidelines as domestic facilities, including FDA inspections.

Suppliers, domestic and foreign, that fail inspections will be required to undergo and pay for a re-inspection. If a recall occurs, they'll also be expected to pony up a fine.

Although there are additional fees added in this legislation, most of them are minor, according to Hutt. Whether or not these fees will lead to more expensive menu items is too difficult to predict at this point.

"Even if there are increased food costs, you still have to maintain proper procedures," Lyon said. "The goal is to respond to and prevent foodborne illness and that's a win-win situation for everyone."

Lyon added that the biggest effects from this legislation will come with the FDA's new mandatory recall authority. The group can mandate a recall based on evidence or suspicion, and can suspend a facility accordingly. Lyon expects recalls to increase at the beginning of the legislation's implementation.

Effect on locally-used produce

In addition to changing foreign import practices, the FSMA also concerns restaurants that use locally-grown produce. Local farm suppliers will be required to post an outline of their growing practices in a prominent area where restaurant customers can see the information, and spell out possible problems that could affect the safety of their products.

"Fresh produce is high risk and local sourcing can increase that risk for a variety of reasons," said Lyon. "There are dangers with any kind of produce, so it's important to go with the right suppliers, large or small."

Before tapping a local produce supplier, operators should know:

  • The adjacent and prior land use;
  • Pre- and post-harvest water sources. Where is it from? Is it micro-tested?
  • What types of fertilizer are used? Raw or composted? "Some people wouldn't eat food if they knew it was grown using manure fertilizer," Lyon said.
  • What pest and animal control methods are taken?
  • Harvesting practices;
  • Employee hygiene practices;
  • Equipment sanitation efforts; and
  • Traceability.

Other checklist items ahead of the legislative rollout

In preparation for the legislation's rollout, it is critical to guarantee your suppliers' certifications and reputation, and to properly train staff and suppliers, according to Lyon. He even suggests setting up mock recall exercises and having an approved secondary supplier with the same credentials in the event of an actual recall.

Also, he said, approve a local produce supplier based on GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) post-harvest guidelines; Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs); Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs); Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP); allergen controls; and trace back systems.

Once all of those steps have been taken, communicate to your customers, Lyon said. If there is a recall, put out a statement promoting your brand's safety practices and response. If not, gain consumers' trust by increasing awareness through social media or other channels.

"It is continuous work to monitor and recertify, but it's something the foodservice industry needs to be doing so you don't put your brand or customers at risk. It will take more time and investment, but it's worth it," Lyon said. "Food safety should never be sacrificed."

Where the FSMA came from

Many anticipate the FSMA will tighten regulatory practices in the foodservice industry, and ultimately make food safer to eat. Greater attention was turned to food safety in 2006 after a number of wide-ranging foodborne outbreaks in everything from peanut butter to spinach to egg shells.

"It was a black eye for the food industry and it hurt consumer perception," said Hutt. "Food safety received strong support from Obama when he was elected. The legislation took the backburner early in his presidency for economic reform issues, but has finally passed and will be implemented by the end of next year."

Consumer perception is a big driver of the legislation. More than 70 percent of the American public believes the government is most responsible for food safety issues, according to research done by the IFIC. Of particular concern is imported food. Sixty-one percent of respondents said foreign imported foods are less safe because they believe it requires less regulation.

"Today's food safety environment has a lot of complexities involved that consumers are hearing about. This leads to perceptions of foreign food being unsafe. For example, the Japanese situation and concern about radiation," Schmidt said. "An active online and social media environment means more people are skeptical. Food safety is always in the back of the minds of consumers."

Stateside, 50 percent of the IFIC survey respondents said they were only "somewhat" confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, while 31 percent said they weren't sure about their confidence levels.

"Consumers don't understand everything that goes into food safety, so this (act) provides an opportunity to spread the word," Schmidt said. "Operators should look at this as an opportunity to communicate that food safety is paramount."

Topics: Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Food Safety, Insurance / Risk Management, Operations Management, Sustainability

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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