The work of an FDA inspector is by nature imprecise. It involves crawling through every part of a food-processing plant, looking for such telltale signs as rodent droppings--a hit or miss proposition. Now, to boost consumer confidence in food safety, the Food & Drug Administration is planning to adopt a more accurate way to inspect and regulate plants.
The agency wants to make companies identify critical steps in their production lines, such as points where food is cooked. Then, the companies will have to continually monitor each critical point, making sure, for instance, that temperatures are high enough to kill dangerous bacteria. A soup plant "might have 20 critical points," says a top FDA official. "If a company keeps checking them, they will never have a problem." Rather than prowling production lines, FDA inspectors will examine the raw data--and the systems for collecting it.
The agency expects to have regulations for seafood companies by this fall, with rules for other producers to follow later. In general, the few companies that already use the new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system are pleased. "We applaud the FDA for seeking to update its regulations and implement modern, scientifically based safety systems," says James R. Kirk, senior vice-president of Campbell Soup Co.