WASHINGTON -- Food Marketing Institute here hailed the Food and Drug Administration's decision to delay new bioterrorism rules as a good-faith gesture by FDA to show that it wants to work with the industry.
FDA announced late last month that it will delay release of new rules about recordkeeping and administrative detention until the end of May. Part of sweeping bioterrorism legislation enacted by Congress in 2002, the proposed rules would require all food manufacturers and retailers to track where they sourced and sold food products, and keep those records for two years.
In a short statement released March 29, FDA said, "The recordkeeping rule is a significant and complex regulation with wide-ranging implications, and it is simply taking us longer to complete than we had anticipated."
"This is a good thing," said John Motley, FMI's senior vice president for government relations. FMI voiced strong objections to FDA's original idea of tracking food shipments by lot codes, "and they took that to heart," he said. "My take is that they're trying to get this right."
FDA's original plans called for tracking food by lot number -- simple for manufacturers, but difficult for distribution centers and retailers since they often divide food from one lot among multiple destinations. FMI fears that a lot-number approach would burden supermarkets with costly new recordkeeping systems. FMI even took government regulators on a tour of manufacturing, distribution and retail centers to show how the food supply chain operates, Motley said.
While FMI does support food-tracking in general, Motley said, it wants regulations based on the same system the grocery industry already has in place to track food during a product recall. It also wants more time for grocers, especially independents, to comply with the rules. FDA currently wants grocers to comply within six to 18 months, depending on the size of the business.
"These [rules] are going to be difficult to manage," Motley said.
In another bioterrorism-related development, scores of food industry and government security executives ran a drill in Maryland on March 31 to gauge how the industry would respond to a food-poisoning outbreak at a chain restaurant.
Tim Hammonds, FMI's chief executive officer, said the experience "will be developed into a model program we hope will be repeated in every state over the next 18 months.
"We are now preparing a similar simulation to take place in a supermarket setting," Hammonds said. "As soon as funding can be obtained, we will hold another exercise in another state."
Participants of the restaurant drill were grouped at various tables depending on their role in an attack: food industry executives, federal regulators, local emergency responders, and state emergency management officials. They went through a scenario where deadly food poisoning broke out at three restaurants shortly after Mother's Day.
Gordon Meriwether, president of the Uriah Group, a security consulting firm in Fairfax, Va., led the restaurant drill. While the exercise was funded with money from the Department of Homeland Security and the National Restaurant Association, the real goal was to show public officials how the food industry operates and to help food businesses figure out how to revive business if a bioterror attack shuts them down, Meriwether said.
"If this does happen, how do you get back on your feet?" Meriwether asked. "The government doesn't know how to do that." The drill intentionally did not focus on any particular pathogen or manner of attack, he said, so participants could get a better understanding of how the food industry operates rather than be bogged down in specific reactions to particular terrorist scenarios.
Meriwether said he ultimately hopes the format can be standardized so similar drills can be held across the nation.