WASHINGTON (FNS) -- An important first step toward unifying the jumble of state and local food safety regulations supermarkets must follow has been taken by the Food and Drug Administration.
That step is the unveiling earlier this month of the agency's long-awaited National Food Protection Code, a set of standards FDA hopes states, counties and all other layers of government will adopt as their unified roadmap for food safety enforcement.
This is the first time in 12 years FDA has issued revisions to the voluntary code, which agency officials tout as the state-of-the-art manual for food preparation, safety and sanitation.
With the guidelines, which were issued Jan. 21 and represent five years of work, FDA has joined the codes of three industries -- retail, vending and restaurant/food service -- to present a one-stop-shopping approach to
food preparation and handling standards.
"There's a lot of pent-up interest in the states for this because of the publicity over food-borne illness," said Art Banks, director of FDA's Retail Food Protection Branch.
The code incorporates new scientific information in areas such as heating and cooling time for foods, and safe temperature levels. And, according to Banks, it is user friendly and presents a clear picture as to what's needed to have a contaminant-free and safe food operation.
Unlike previous code revisions, FDA refers to the new code as "recommended standards" for local governments to adopt, as opposed to "minimum standards." This is an intentional move. FDA wants the nation's food standards to be adopted across-the-board so that the country will have a unified set of health standards.
Banks said FDA's goal is to have 70% of the nation's 85 states, territories and possessions adopt the new food code as their own. Complicating the task is that not all states hold sway over their local governments' health codes, which means the code will have to be adopted county by county, city by city, before the nation is in sync.
"It seemed a lot of people in the past didn't want to have just the minimum standards, which encouraged local governments to add to them and change them. Everyone wanted to have the optimum standards," Banks said.
The new criteria for safe food handling is spelled out according to a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point protocol, which covers all the steps that should be taken to ensure food isn't contaminated.
The code was issued at the same time as a proposed seafood inspection system based on the HACCP approach. That system does not directly apply to retailers, but focuses on processors, packers, warehouses and importers. (See related story, Page 27.)
However, agency officials said the new food code will be relied upon to extend a uniform seafood safety program to retail.
For example, as part of its criteria the Food Protection Code recommends that retailers tag shellfish identifying its source and that they keep records for 90 days to be able to trace the origin of a product if a consumer reports illness. It also calls on retailers to post consumer advisories regarding the potential hazards connected with consuming raw shellfish for certain at-risk consumers.
The Food Marketing Institute here applauded FDA for its HACCP-based food code, saying it will "further enhance consumers' confidence in the safety of the American food supply. The code does contain some major changes in compliance criteria. We have begun a detailed review so that we may advise our members on its implications and update our educational materials."
Implementing HACCP-based inspection systems has become a priority of many agencies, said Heidi Klein, projects manger for environmental health at the National Association of County Health Officials.
Many local health departments, though, haven't had the wherewithal to move toward HACCP, since their rules are based on FDA's old food code, which emphasized a rote checklist approach to inspection instead of identifying potential contamination and safety hazards, she said.
Fred Reimers, corporate sanitarian for the 250-store, San Antonio-based H-E-B Grocery Co., said he's anxious to read the new code.
"We're hoping it's everything that's been promised -- that it's an HACCP-based process based on scientific data and that it's user friendly." H-E-B now must work with 88 jurisdictions and their sanitation requirements.