Expedited Food Import Program Delayed but Importers Encouraged to Start Application Process
A new program to facilitate imports will not launch this year as expected, but the Food and Drug Administration is encouraging importers to get a head start on the application process for next year to improve their chances of being approved to participate.
The Food and Drug Administration’s Voluntary Qualified Importer Program is a fee-based initiative that will, among other benefits, provide for expedited review and importation of human and animal food by participating importers who achieve and maintain a high level of control over the safety and security of their supply chains. The FDA believes VQIP benefits will incentivize importers to adopt a robust system of supply chain management and allow the agency to focus its resources on examining and sampling food imports that are more likely to present a potential risk to public health.
The VQIP application can include any FDA-regulated human and/or animal food, including seafood, processed foods, produce, dietary supplements, and pet food. Foods covered by the VQIP application must be produced in a foreign facility or farm that is certified by an auditor accredited through the FDA’s accredited third-party certification program.
However, because no auditors have yet been accredited, the FDA does not anticipate that importers will be able to apply to participate in VQIP during this application cycle (which runs from Jan. 1 through May 31 each year). The FDA explains that while it has recognized two accreditation bodies, those bodies have not yet accredited any of the certification bodies (also known as third-party auditors) that will conduct food safety audits of foreign facilities and issue the certifications that importers need to participate in VQIP.
Nevertheless, the FDA is encouraging importers to take steps now to prepare for next year’s application period, which could open early once certification bodies have been accredited. Importers should first submit a notice of intent to participate in VQIP. The FDA has indicated that it may only assess up to 200 applications in the first year, and ST&R attorney Shelly Garg says filing a notice of intent to participate will theoretically reserve an importer’s place in the queue. Notices must be resubmitted each year.
Importers can also begin working now on their applications, which Garg notes can be a time-consuming process. The FDA has said importers should have at least a three-year history of importing food into the U.S. and be in compliance with supplier verification and other responsibilities under the Foreign Supplier Verification Program and the juice and/or seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points regulations, if required. However, VQIP requires that importers go one step further to establish additional controls over their supply chains; e.g., creating quality assurance programs, which include written policies and procedures regarding safety and security and show compliance with criteria related to transportation and food defense. Garg says thoroughly reviewing and meeting the application requirements can help improve the chances an importer’s application is approved.
Finally, the FDA states, as certification bodies are accredited, importers can begin working with them to obtain certifications for the facilities from which they are importing. Having these certifications ready before January will give importers a head start in the application process.
For more information on, or assistance with, the VQIP application process, please contact Shelly Garg at (305) 894-1043.