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Are US Coffee Importers Ready for FSMA?
STiR Tea & Coffee International / June 9, 2016

By Larry Luxner

With the first provisions of the sweeping Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) set to take effect Sept. 19, the U.S. coffee industry is scrambling to understand what it all means — and how to comply with minimal expense and bureaucracy.

The National Coffee Association, calling FSMA “the most dramatic reframing of the U.S. food safety system since the 1930s,” said the industry faces widespread “confusion and complexity” due to the 1,500 pages of rules FMSA entails, and because of the multiple regulations being implemented on different timelines.

Simply put, within four months, any U.S. company that imports food products — including coffee — will have to maintain written food safety plans. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently clarified that HAACP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plans already being used by manufacturing plants would suffice under the new rules.

“We had a concern early on that the FDA might be looking to put in brand new safety plans and throw out the old ones, which would have been like re-inventing the wheel,” NCA spokesman Joseph DeRupo told us in a phone interview from New York.

While rules on “preventive controls for human food” come into force on Sept. 19, rules for three other categories take effect at various dates next year. These are sanitary transportation (April 5, 2017), intentional adulteration (July 31, 2017) and foreign supplier verification (Dec. 31, 2017). No effective date has yet been announced for the fifth category, third-party accreditation and certification.

Yet FMSA means stepped-up inspections, and it’s unclear that the industry is ready. Close to 40 percent of U.S. food and beverage professionals say their companies are not prepared to fully comply with FSMA regulations this year, according to a recent survey conducted by software maker Sparta Systems Inc.

According to Sparta, about 43 percent of respondents predicted that FSMA’s passage would ultimately lead to improvements in visibility and safety throughout the supply chain. On the question of automation — considered a key component in managing FSMA compliance for tracking and reporting food quality and safety — 38 percent of respondents said their organizations have manual systems, 56 percent said their process were partially automated, and 7 percent said they were fully automated.

But in another poll, this one conducted by SafetyChain Software and The Acheson Group, only 25 percent of respondents felt they were ready for FSMA, while 6 percent said they weren’t ready at all, according to Food Engineering magazine.

The NCA’s DeRupo said there’s no way to quantify how much companies will have to spend in order to comply with the new rules.

“It might be costly in some cases,” he told us. “It’s going to be burdensome on some importers, warehouse companies and in some cases transportation companies, because these rules are probably new to them, whereas manufacturing plants have had HAACP plans in place, so for them the change won’t be so drastic.”

Under FSMA, DeRupo said, coffee importers “will be required to verify their suppliers, so if there were problems, there’s a chance of legal liability on their part. This statute is aimed at all facilities that pack, hold, ship and warehouse food. FSMA now makes these facilities responsible for the safety of the food they handle — whereas before they could essentially pass along the products without taking responsibility.”

The NCA has about 350 member companies, which account for 95 percent of the U.S. coffee industry. DeRupo said that since Jan. 3, 2011 — when the statute itself was first signed into law — his organization has filed multiple sets of formal comments with the FDA to limit FSMA’s negative financial and logistics impact on the coffee industry.

“From very early on, we’ve emphasized the fact that coffee should be given special treatment as a low-risk commodity and should appropriately be accorded a lower level of scrutiny because coffee doesn’t spoil and cannot be consumed raw,” he said. “We’ve made that point all along.”

The NCA points out that under the new rules, facilities must renew their FDA registrations every two years — an amendment to the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, which merely established a requirement that food facilities register with the FDA.

“Our members are a little concerned about being ready for compliance,” he said. “I’ve not heard any specific complaints about cost. Rather, it’s that these rules are coming, and they’re not quite sure how to comply without ending up getting fined.”

To help its members, the NCA has conducted several webinars on the topic and put together training sessions at its conventions. It is also working on additional formal training programs to help the industry prepare for FSMA compliance come September.

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