FDA issues final rules on produce safety, imported foods

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued new rules designed to prevent foodborne illnesses caused by tainted produce that sicken millions of Americans each year, the agency said on Friday.

The final rules put teeth into the FDA's ability to enforce food safety by establishing safety standards for produce farms and making importers accountable for verifying that imported foods meet U.S. safety standards.

The FDA said the new rules will help produce farmers and food importers take steps to prevent problems before they occur. The changes are part of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping package of food safety reforms governing produce safety, preventive controls for food produced in facilities, and the safety of imported food.

An estimated 48 million Americans get sick each year from foodborne diseases, out of a population of 322 million. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The recent multistate outbreak of Salmonella in imported cucumbers that has killed four Americans, hospitalized 157 and sickened hundreds more, is exactly the kind of outbreak these rules can help prevent," Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in a statement.

The Produce Safety rule includes requirements for water quality, employee health and hygiene, wild and domesticated animals, compost and manure, and equipment, tools, and buildings.

The final rule includes public comments and input from hundreds of farm visits and meetings with stakeholders, the FDA said.

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Under the new Foreign Supplier Verification rule, food importers will be required to verify that suppliers are producing food that meets U.S. safety standards. The FDA also issued guidelines governing the accreditation of third-party auditors to conduct food safety audits on foreign food facilities.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that imported food accounted for 19 percent of the U.S. food supply, including 52 percent of fresh fruits and 22 percent of fresh vegetables.

In a conference call, Taylor said he is confident that the new rules will improve food safety, but said success is contingent on full funding of President Barack Obama's 2016 budget request.