Ensuring The Safety Of Imported Food Ingredients

A flattening world, consumer price resistance and overtaxed regulators require new approaches to ensure the safety of imported food ingredients.

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Under the current food import system, any country or company can export food products to the U.S. if they notify regulators of the shipment. The FDA does not ensure trading partners have equivalent standards, nor can the agency inspect overseas plants when problems arise. So when there is an outbreak, the FDA’s investigation can be delayed by uncooperative foreign governments.

During the pet food recall, U.S. regulators were delayed three weeks in their request for visas to inspect Chinese facilities. Since then, FDA has restricted imports of some pet-food ingredients and some seafood from China.

Processors, suppliers responsible

As the law is written, it’s really the responsibility of the food processor to provide safe and properly labeled food and to make sure imported products are safe. Many companies protect their customers, brand name and stockholders by taking extra safety measures to ensure their suppliers’ products are safe.

“Nestlé is a global company that operates in almost every country of the world, including China,” says Edie Burge, spokesperson for corporate and brand affairs at Nestlé USA, Glendale, Calif. “We have long-term relationships in China with a large number of suppliers and have established high quality standards for the ingredients they supply.

“Being part of an international company with geographically diverse operations gives us the advantage of having on-the-ground resources to stay informed on quality assurance issues, and that assists in our continuous improvement efforts. Nestlé has rigorous processes in place to monitor materials that we import from around the world. Product quality is our No. 1 priority.”

Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. also has safeguards in place. “All of our suppliers must meet stringent Kellogg requirements, which include third-party audits, food safety and compliance to all applicable regulations − regardless of the country of origin,” says spokesperson Kris Charles. “We constantly review our food safety programs and have arranged additional third-party audits of our suppliers in China as an extra precautionary measure.”

Tyson Foods Inc., Springdale, Ark., manufactures products in China – both for domestic and export consumption. “We use only suppliers that are already certified for Japanese export [which is a higher standard than domestic China production], ensuring we start with the best suppliers,” explains James Rice, Tyson’s vice president and general manager–Greater China. “These suppliers, and their suppliers, are audited regularly by our American quality assurance manager, and we practice 100 percent inspection on all raw materials coming into our facility.

“When Tyson products are manufactured by our partners, our quality assurance manager and our American production manager are in those facilities ensuring the same quality standards are maintained. Our global customers also audit our plants and our suppliers. The net result is regulators, the manufacturer, and customers are working together to ensure the quality of our products.”

He adds, “As the brand owner, our job is to be certain all levels of private and public sector quality assurance work together to identify, manage and mitigate all food safety risks.”

Rice, who has 18 years experience working in China, believes the country’s modern manufacturers and its governmental food quality watchdog, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), have the processes and the commitment to ensure quality food products are made for export.

However, “Any food company importing food or food ingredients today is just as vulnerable as those in the pet food industry in 2007 unless they have an extensive import program in place addressing food safety,” warns Gale Prince, a pioneer food safety expert with 40 years of experience with major U.S. food companies.

“Too often the decision between purchasing domestic and imported ingredients is based upon cost of the basic ingredients,” he continues. “Responsible firms need to know who is producing their imported products and ingredients and where. This includes a facility inspection of the foreign producing firm and evaluation of operational practices and technical expertise.”

“Gadot Biochemical Industries Ltd. is currently building a plant for citric acid and sodium citrate in China, and we will apply the same quality levels and quality systems as we have in our plant in Haifa, Israel,” says Ronny Hacham, vice president business development and marketing. "Products will meet USP/BP/JP/NF/FCC monographs, and the plant will grant GMP, HACCP, ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 certificates -- certified by Western certification bodies.

“Pharmline, our American company, sources many ingredients in China and India, and applies very stringent QC procedures,” adds Hacham. “As has been the case for years, it can provide traceability of every incoming raw material to the pallet or drum level.”

Pharmline is about to announce the reopening of an office in China, and this new operation will be focused on quality assurance and vendor compliance issues. The company plans to conduct regular GMP audits of its top vendors, environmental audits and regular web meetings with vendor quality control departments to collaborate on analytical methodologies, HACCP and current issues of concern to industry. “This will add another level of confidence in the quality of ingredients Pharmline currently sources in China,” says Hacham.

“It is still critical for the food processor to visit the ingredient supplier -- wherever they are located -- and build a close relationship of understanding and trust,” says Bob Hoopingarner, vice president of sales and marketing at International Dehydrated Foods Inc. (www.idf.com), Springfield, Mo.

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