FDA Tightens Rules on Suspect Food

The Food and Drug Administration (search) announced new rules Thursday under which it can detain for up to 30 days food or food-related materials suspected of posing a threat to health.

The rules were invoked under the 2002 bioterrorism act (search) but include any instance where FDA has evidence or information that there is a serious health threat.

"The rule strengthens the security of our food supply by enabling us to act more quickly and effectively to prevent potentially contaminated food from reaching consumers," Health and Human Services (search) Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

The agency has long had authority to seize tainted or dangerous foods and does so, but that procedure can take time. Previously, the FDA has had to rely on state authorities to detain suspect items until it could act.

Under the new rule, already in effect, FDA officials have their own authority to order suspect items held for up to 30 days. The rule requires the FDA to hold a hearing within two days if the owner of the products petitions for its return.

If the material is determined to be safe it is then returned to the owner. Potentially, perishable items could spoil while being held, but officials said the act does not give the agency authority to reimburse owners for losses.

The National Food Processors Association (search) called the rule a "powerful tool for protecting the public" but urged that it be used sparingly.

"We believe that the request for a voluntary recall still represents the most viable option for a majority of these situations, with detention being considered as a second option," the association said in a statement.

Last October the FDA issued rules under the bioterrorism act that require that all domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food that will be consumed in the U.S. to register with the agency, and that the agency be notified in advance of all food imported or offered for import into the U.S.

The FDA said it plans to issue another rule shortly requiring records to help FDA track food implicated in any future emergencies.