By Dennis Thompson
FRIDAY, July 26 (HealthDay News) -- Faced with more reports of illness outbreaks linked to imported foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed new rules that would have these products meet the same safety standards as food grown in the United States.
The announcement comes as public health officials scramble to track down the cause of a multi-state outbreak of cyclospora, a foodborne intestinal parasite common to tropical locations such as Latin America and Southeast Asia. The bug has caused more than 285 reported cases of illness, mainly in Iowa, Nebraska and Texas.
Another 153 people have contracted hepatitis A this year from eating pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proposed new FDA rules also would strengthen accreditation standards for foreign food safety auditors used by food companies and importers to oversee the safety of their global food supply chains.
"Prevention is central to securing the safety of our food supply," FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said at a news conference. "We need to do more than react."
Imported food accounts for about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply, including about half of the fresh fruits and 20 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed by Americans, according to the FDA. The United States currently imports food from around 150 countries across the globe.
The FDA issued the rules as part of the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in January 2011.
Food importers who fail to meet safety standards could be banned from the market, said Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
"We will be auditing their plans, and if we find the plan is not effective then they will stop them from importing food until they satisfy us that they are doing their job properly," Taylor said.
Companies and stakeholders will have 120 days to provide comment on the proposed rules. After that, it could take 12 to 18 months for the FDA to issue a final rule, and then companies would be given additional time to come into compliance, Taylor said.
The rules will require that importers identify potential sources of contamination in the supply chain that brings food from the field to the supermarket, and verify that steps are being taken to control risks in a way that meets U.S. food safety requirements.
The FDA also would begin recognizing accreditation bodies that would authorize third-party auditors who would inspect foreign food facilities.
To learn more about food safety inspection, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
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