By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - The Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule on Friday that would require food companies to verify that products they import meet certain safety standards.
The rule is one of a series proposed under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed in 2011. It represents the most sweeping reform of food safety in more than 70 years.
More than 3,000 people in the United States die each year from food-borne illnesses, according to federal data. One in six are sickened and 100,000 hospitalized from illness tied to pathogens such as salmonella, E.Coli and listeria.
Under the proposal, companies would be required to identify hazards associated with each food that might be reasonably likely to occur. They would have to keep records, which would be subject to audits. The audits would be carried out by private firms who would be accredited by an FDA-sanctioned body such as a government.
"We are very confident that if we are able to implement this over time we certainly will reduce the burden of illness," said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, in an interview. "We don't think we'll get to zero. But we know that these conscientious preventive measures work."
The purpose of new law is to move the FDA into preventative mode when dealing with food-borne illness from the reactive mode in which it has operated historically. Once fully enacted, the law will give the agency increased powers to inspect facilities and enforce compliance with safety standards.
The United States imports about 15 percent of its total food supply from overseas. For some sectors, such as seafood, produce and spices, the level of imports is much higher.
For fiscal 2013 the biggest agricultural exporters to the United States are forecast to be Canada and Mexico, according to USDA. China, Brazil, Indonesia and Thailand are other major suppliers.
The FDA said it will continue to conduct border inspections and will increase inspections of foreign facilities.
This summer, at least 150 people in the United States were sickened with Hepatitis A linked to pomegranate seeds imported from Turkey and used in a frozen berry mix sold in U.S. stores. And cucumbers imported from Mexico were linked to an outbreak of Salmonella that sickened 84 people in 18 states.
Sandra Eskin, director for food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts, applauded the move, saying "it is important and long overdue."
Additional proposals are in development. Within the next few months, FDA hopes to issue a proposal to improve the safety of animal feed and pet food, Taylor said. It is also working on rules to better protect against intentional tampering with food, and on rules on food transportation.
The FDA has missed several deadlines to implement the new food law. In June, a federal court ordered FDA to finalize its rules by June 30, 2015 and said all draft rule proposals must be presented to the public by November 30 of this year.
"Food safety is a global problem. We're all eager to get this done as expeditiously as possible," said Taylor.
The law has its critics. Baylen Linnekin, director of Keep Food Legal, a group that opposes many food regulations, said the FDA is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to provide Americans "with a false veneer of safety."
(Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington; Editing by Ros Krasny, Bob Burgdorfer and Sofina Mirza-Reid)