The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) may not have a major impact on many foodservice establishments, especially if they or their suppliers already scrutinize where their food comes from and how it is handled in the supply chain. But to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of operation, it will bring regulations, record keeping and paperwork.
The act marks a pivotal shift in the nation’s food safety system away from reacting to food contamination to preventing it. It establishes a set of controls intended to ensure safety throughout the food supply.
“We really do believe it is making a difference and will continue to make a difference,” says Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing illness and death from foodborne pathogens.
The thrust of FSMA is to ensure that safe food controls are implemented and followed throughout the journey of food from producer to end user. In addition, it gives the FDA new powers for food recalls. “This is the first time that FDA has had a legislative mandate,” says Schlunegger. “It really holds industry accountable for its responsibility to produce safe food.”
FSMA has become law against the backdrop of increasing public concern about foodborne illness. Each year, about 48 million Americans get sick from food, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Highly publicized outbreaks have caused great human suffering and cost brands millions of dollars.
Although the legislation is aimed primarily at food producers, it can affect some foodservice operators. For example, FSMA’s foreign supplier verification program requires that operators that import foods directly from overseas verify that all U.S. food safety procedures have been done throughout the supply chain. Wholesome International, the Pittsburgh-based operator of four Choolaah Indian BBQ restaurants and 40 franchised Five Guys burger units, works with a global food safety organization to make sure that the Indian ingredients it brings in are certified safe.
Another FSMA rule requires verification that foods have been shipped under proper food safety conditions, such as at appropriate temperature.
The wild card in the discussion is how politics will affect FSMA. During his campaign, President Trump called for cuts in spending and staffing in most federal agencies. Early on, his administration imposed a freeze on new hiring and regulations. Schlunegger says it is too early to tell if there will be budget cuts that affect the law, or if they occur, how they would impact enforcement. In any event, the organization would oppose such cuts.
One thing is clear—under FSMA, food safety responsibility begins long before food reaches the kitchen. “Now we really have to take a farm-to-fork approach,” says Jorge Hernandez, Wholesome International’s chief food safety officer. “We need information about the food all the way back to where it comes from, and we still have to do all the right things with it in the kitchen.”