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Dairy industry seeks to work with FDA on equivalence standards

FDA asked to not use same imported food safety oversight for dairy as it applies to foreign shellfish.

U.S. dairy producers and manufacturers offered to collaborate with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to continue fostering dairy food safety and job growth as the agency develops procedures for regulating imported foods, including shellfish and dairy.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) asked for further engagement with FDA on ways to facilitate U.S. dairy exports while expressing concerns that the manner in which the U.S. government is handling shellfish trade would pose a deep concern if that same process were applied to the trade of dairy foods.

At issue is FDA’s determination of whether a foreign country has “equivalent” food safety parameters as the U.S. Equivalence is a process by which FDA can recognize other countries’ food safety measures as meeting an equivalent level of protection as provided by U.S. food safety measures, such as those mandated by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference or the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments.

In a letter sent May 29 to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, NMPF and USDEC praised the commissioner’s commitment to “unlock economic opportunity ... by creating new market access” and outlined the various ways in which the agency’s actions on dairy equivalence would need to differ dramatically from the process followed for establishing bilateral shellfish equivalency to safeguard U.S. consumers while addressing job-constraining foreign barriers to U.S. dairy products.

This spring, FDA published a notice in the Federal Register soliciting comments on its proposed finding that the European Union’s food safety system for certain raw shellfish is equivalent to that of the U.S. The notice represented the first time the agency has issued an equivalence determination. NMPF and USDEC filed detailed comments analyzing the notice’s potential implications for America’s dairy industry as FDA continues its ongoing Grade “A” dairy equivalence assessments of New Zealand, the EU and Canada.

“While we recognize that the U.S. government has international obligations to be responsive to trading partners’ equivalency requests while still upholding high U.S. food safety standards, our trading partners, likewise, have their own obligations to not impose unduly burdensome or trade-distorting measures on U.S. exports,” NMPF president and chief executive officer Jim Mulhern said.

“As part of the Administration’s efforts to expand the U.S. economy and grow American jobs, FDA has a responsibility to safeguard our consumers while also working in tandem with our trade agencies to tear down foreign barriers to U.S. products,” Mulhern continued. “FDA’s scarce resources are best spent pursuing these goals in concert with one another by working with their inter-agency partners to make the best use of the agency’s skilled staff and taxpayer funds. Trade needs to be a two-way street; some of our trading partners understand that better than others.”

USDEC chief operating officer Matt McKnight pointed out another area of the notice that would be problematic if it were applied to dairy trade, explaining, “American dairy producers in every state are governed by a uniform dairy food safety program, which is overseen by FDA and provides consistently high food safety results for U.S. products exported all around the world, regardless of where in this country they were made.”

McKnight continued, “A dairy export deal that allowed only two states to access a foreign market, as is the case under this shellfish proposal, would create unacceptable commercial inequities in our industry. Our exporters face a lot of roadblocks around the world, particularly in the EU market. We look forward to working with FDA to fully address those barriers and ensure that all U.S. dairy products from all U.S. states have an equal opportunity to benefit from the agency’s work to tackle countries’ unjustified or overly burdensome requirements on American-made products.”

In their letter, NMPF and USDEC reiterated that their joint comments did not scrutinize the technical merits of FDA’s decision on the safety of EU shellfish but instead focused on the process employed with the goal of ensuring that it is not replicated with respect to dairy trade. The two organizations seek to work in partnership with FDA to pursue a dairy model that will successfully uphold U.S. food safety standards while facilitating the resolution of barriers to U.S. exports that limit job growth in the dairy sector.

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