The Food and Drug Administration expects to begin accepting applications early this year for the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program, which will 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. This expedited treatment will be particularly helpful, the FDA states, for those importing perishable products or using just in time processing. The FDA believes VQIP benefits will incentivize importers to adopt a robust system of supply chain management and allow the FDA to focus its resources on examining and sampling food imports that are more likely to present a potential risk to public health.

Benefits. The FDA states that it will expedite entry for all foods included in an approved VQIP application. Specifically, the agency will be setting up its PREDICT (Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting) import screening tool to recognize food shipments that are part of the VQIP program and, in most cases, immediately release those shipments without further examination and sampling.

The FDA notes that it will generally limit its examination and sampling of approved VQIP food to “for cause” situations in which it suspects a potential risk to public health, such as possible contamination or misbranding. In such cases the sampling or examination location would be the VQIP food’s destination or another location chosen by the importer, to the extent possible, and any laboratory processing of samples would be expedited.

Eligibility. 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.

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, the FDA notes that VQIP recognizes importers that go above and beyond the mandatory requirements of these programs to establish additional controls over their supply chains. For example, VQIP importers should have quality assurance programs (which include written policies and procedures regarding safety and security) that show compliance with criteria related to transportation and food defense.

The FDA notes that many companies “are already doing much of what is required to participate in VQIP.”

Application. Importers will be able to start applying for VQIP in early 2018 (the specific date has yet to be established and is dependent on how soon auditors can issue facility certifications) and will need to resubmit their notices of intent to participate each year. Participants will be charged a user fee each year; the specific amount will be published around Aug. 1, but the FDA previously estimated it at $16,400. One application will cover all the foods an importer intends to import under the program and may cover multiple foreign supplier facilities or farms. The FDA intends to initially assess up to 200 applications in the first year, although that number could be higher or lower depending on the amount of resources needed to initiate the program.

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