The Food and Drug Administration is taking specific steps to try and ensure that imported food meets the same safety standards as those in the United States, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told state agriculture officials Wednesday.

In a speech at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Winter Policy Conference, Gottlieb addressed that issue, as well as implementation of the Produce Safety Rule in the Food Safety Modernization Act, including efforts to collaborate with USDA on research and on-the-ground training.

Some of the produce rule’s requirements are beginning to kick in for large farms. However, FDA has delayed implementing agricultural water requirements to give itself time to review the water standards “to ensure that they are feasible for farmers in all regions of the country, while protecting public health,” FDA said last September.

On the international front, Gottlieb said FDA has just recognized its first accreditation body, which will have the authority to accredit third-party certification organizations to conduct food-safety audits using FDA’s safety standards, and issue certifications of foreign food facilities and the foods they produce for both people and animals.

The certifications will be used to establish eligibility for participation in the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP), which offers “expedited review and entry of food for importers who achieve and maintain a high level of control over the safety and security of their supply chains,” Gottlieb said. “And second, they will require that an imported product be certified in certain circumstances to keep a potentially harmful food from entering the country.”

The VQIP opened for business Wednesday, Gottlieb said. The program will be available for importers “who go above and beyond what is required” under Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) “to establish a high level of control over the safety and security of their supply chains.”

In addition, the opening of VQIP “will allow us to turn our attention to imported foods that present a greater potential risk to public health,” Gottlieb said. “I am confident that these new tools will amplify our oversight of imported products, and better focus on the most important risks.”

Gottlieb also announced a new hire who will be focused on produce safety. Jim Gorny, a vice president for food safety and technology at the Produce Marketing Association, will be a senior science adviser in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition starting Feb. 5.

Before joining PMA in 2013, Gorny was a senior adviser for produce safety at CFSAN for about four years. Prior to that, he was executive director of the University of California-Davis’s Postharvest Center.

Gorny “knows FSMA very well, what it’s designed to accomplish in enhancing food safety, and the challenges associated with implementation of a rule as complex as the produce safety rule,” Gottlieb said. He will be “instrumental in strengthening the bridge between FDA and our partners in both state government and the food industry.”

USDA and FDA will be working closely together as the produce safety rule is implemented, the commissioner said.

“(Agriculture) Secretary Sonny Perdue and I are committed to working together to quickly develop appropriate training materials and use USDA’s infrastructure with state cooperative extension to deliver this training in a manner that is as efficient and effective as possible – likely a webinar format,” he said.

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