The public will have its first chance Thursday and Friday to weigh in on new federal rules aimed at improving the safety of food imported into the United States.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's first public meeting on imported food safety rules that the agency initially proposed in July is taking place in Washington, D.C.
About 15 percent of the total U.S. food supply is imported from other countries, including nearly 50 percent of fresh fruit and 20 percent of fresh vegetables, according to the FDA.
"The United States desperately needs to improve its regulation of imported food, said Sandra Eskin, director for food safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Right now all we have, if we're lucky, is point-of-entry inspection," Eskin said. "The FDA has estimated that between 1 and 2 percent of products imported are inspected at the border. That doesn't sound like a very strong safety net. That's the importance of this proposed program."
There are a number of outstanding questions about the proposed rule that need to be addressed, Eskin said. Pew officials plan to testify at the public meeting and highlight these questions, she said.
For instance, she added, there needs to be more detail regarding the verification process that importers must implement.
"An importer for the first time is going to be held responsible for the safety of the products he brings into the country," Eskin said. "We want to make sure that the verification programs actually result in a reliable determination. That's critical to the whole foundation of this program."
Pew also wants to make sure that potential conflicts of interest are taken into account when credentialing third-party auditors, and that the standards that auditors must meet are clear and exacting, she said.
The FDA has announced two other public meetings on its proposal. The second will take place in Miami on Oct. 10-11, and the third will take place in Long Beach, Calif., on Oct. 22-23. Written comments are due to the FDA by the end of November.
"Those are two big ports, and they will probably flesh out the specifics and raise some more questions during those meetings," Eskin said."