A new federal law gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sweeping new powers to establish standards and regulate food processor facilities and growers both in this country and internationally, a food industry consultant told the Louisiana Food Processors Conference March 16 in Baton Rouge, La.

Dr. David Acheson, managing director, food and import safety practice, at Leavitt Partners in Salt Lake City, Utah, said the new Food Safety Modernization Act gives FDA specific authority to establish standards on fresh produce, including preventive controls on high-risk items.

“Even before the passage of new legislation, FDA was aggressively implementing new regulations and guidance across the entire supply chain,” said Acheson, a physician and former associate commissioner of foods for the FDA.

The act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Jan. 4, is intended to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The seventh annual conference focused on new regulations in food safety and security, said John Finley, head of the LSU AgCenter Department of Food Science.

“Our role is one of support to the industry,” Finley said. The support functions include education, testing and product development.

Food processing is an important component of the Louisiana economy, said Kelsey Short, director of agriculture, forestry and food processing with Louisiana Economic Development. Most economic growth in the state comes from existing businesses, he added.

“Changes are significant and impacts are potentially huge,” Acheson said, making three points about the new law:

– FDA has made it their mission to move ahead on this quickly.

– FDA is placing heavy emphasis on prevention.

– FDA has increased focus on imports.

Concerning food safety, “99.9 percent of companies will do the right thing anyway,” he said.

Government has set targets to reduce illnesses measured in cases per 1,000 people, Acheson said. “Salmonella has become a focus area for the regulators.”

FDA will use accredited laboratories that will evaluate food samples, both domestic and imported, Acheson said. And high-risk imports may be required to provide certification of safety for every shipment.

Implementation of the new act “probably isn’t going to happen any time soon,” he said. “After the law come regulations.”

A rule of thumb, Acheson said, is that one page of legislation turns into 100 pages of regulations – and the new law is 250 pages long.

Acheson advised the food processors that stringent record keeping may be in the offing. “I think electronic record keeping is going to be encouraged,” he said.

Among other things, the new regulations give FDA authority to require a product recall rather than only suggest one, Acheson said.

Managing recalls and public perceptions about them was covered by Stuart Hanfling, senior vice president with Amwins Brokerage of Illinois, an insurance brokerage company.

The risk management professional presented information about various aspects of protecting a company from the problems associated with a product recall and selecting insurance plans to shield an organization from associated financial exposure.

“You can avoid a recall by doing those things that prevent problems,” Hanfling said.  But if a product is recalled, “you can’t keep it to yourself. The Internet means the public may hear about problems before you do.”

Co-sponsored by the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Economic Development, the conference also included presentations on the benefits of large-scale farming, personnel management and processing plant inspection practices along with details of a frozen-food-processing pilot plant provided by Air Liquide in the AgCenter.