Tougher rules on shrimp imports hailed
Potential rules on Gulf oysters averted
Thursday, December 23, 2010 By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch Staff writer
A food safety bill passed through Congress on Wednesday with language that increases inspection and enforcement standards on imported seafood.
The bill, which now awaits President Barack Obama's signature to become law, gives the Food and Drug Administration unprecedented power to regulate food contamination, allowing the FDA to demand food recalls, increase inspections, access food company records and require manufacturers to keep more detailed food safety plans.
The bill also retained language that prevents any immediate regulations being imposed upon the Gulf Coast oyster industry.
The Southern Shrimp Alliance, an eight-state coalition of shrimpers and processors that has long pushed for greater regulations on shrimp imports, hailed the bill's final passage as providing "a new level of federal-state partnership that allows state and local officials to act as an arm of the federal government to increase inspection and enforce safe seafood standards."
Under the bill, states would receive federal grants to train local officials and provide necessary staffing levels and lab capabilities to carry out enforcement, inspection and surveillance.
Other concepts embraced by the Southern Shrimp Alliance are increased penalties for imported food safety violations and more intricate foreign facility testing, inspections and certification.
And a year after the FDA backed down on proposed 2011 bacterial treatment requirements for raw oysters in warmer months, the new legislation makes it harder to impose regulations on the processing and consumption of oysters.
The FDA would have to conduct public health and cost assessments, and consult with federal and state officials and agencies before implementing any regulations. Also any potential regulations to oysters would require passing a report through the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the House's Committee on Energy and Commerce.
That report would detail how post-harvest processing could be implemented in the fastest, safest and most economical manner, the projected public health benefits and the costs of compliance on the oyster industry. The FDA would have to guarantee that any criteria would be applied equally to shellfish imported from all foreign counties.
In terms of the new stiffer import regulations, if a product -- for example, seafood -- is rejected by a port, under the new legislation it would be stamped "Refused Entry by the United States Government" and the federal government would then notify all other ports of the refused product and shipment number.
Southern Shrimp Alliance officials said the added language would help prevent "port shopping," where importers refused at one port would jump to another undetected.
The FDA would be required to inspect foreign facilities at least once every four years and a facility's certification can be withdrawn if it is linked to the outbreak of a food-borne illness. FDA inspection facilities would be set up in foreign countries to provide assistance to foreign companies that want to import to the U.S.
"The level of FDA testing enforcement must be set high enough that the consequences of importing contaminated shrimp become a greater cost of doing business than importers can sustain," said a statement from the Southern Shrimp Alliance released on Wednesday. "Only then will importers demand that their shrimp suppliers stop using illegal antibiotics and pesticides on their farms."
A separate amendment to the bill, which would have increased FDA inspections on seafood imports to 20 percent by 2015, failed. The Southern Shrimp Alliance says the FDA now inspects less than 2 percent of such imports.
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Benjamin Alexander-Bloch can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3321.