Food makers' taste for government regulation is changing.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the industry's largest trade group, tomorrow will unveil a proposal to beef up federal oversight of imported food and ingredients. Under a public-private partnership, the system would require the industry to adopt food-safety measures such as product tests and checks on foreign suppliers.
Representing companies ranging from Kraft Foods Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. to smaller, family-owned companies, the GMA is also lobbying Congress for more funds for the Food and Drug Administration, and it is working with federal and state officials and other groups toward a model regulation for farms and packing houses around the country.
"It's in our interest to have a strong FDA," said GMA President Cal Dooley, a former California congressman. "We need to have consumer confidence in the food products."
Several other grower and processor groups are seeking tighter oversight. In Florida, tomato growers such as Tony DiMare, who fought numerous government attempts over the years to intervene in his industry, helped persuade the Florida legislature to change the law so the state can regulate growers and packers.
Meanwhile, the seafood industry is lobbying Congress for legislation that would require importers to register with the government and be certified before sending seafood to the U.S. It is also seeking to increase the FDA's funding next year by $200 million so its inspectors can travel overseas to examine plants.
These efforts mark a sea change for the traditionally regulation-averse food industry. Behind the shift is an increasing awareness among industry executives that, with several major food-contamination cases recently shaking consumer confidence and damping sales, their push for greater deregulation is hurting themselves.
In the vacuum of strong national regulation, states, food processors and retailers are imposing their own rules and requirements to ensure product safety. Complying with the resulting web of rules is proving expensive and difficult for many food makers, however.
Complicating the situation is a rising flood of food imports from countries such as China, where regulation and enforcement have been criticized as spotty. While some calls by U.S. industries for tougher standards may be aimed at leveling the playing field with cheaper imports -- or may even be protectionist measures in disguise -- they underscore the challenges that U.S. companies face as they seek to ensure the safety of products from around the world.
Marion Aller, director of Florida's food-safety division, is working with industry groups and federal and state regulators to develop standards. "It is smart that the industry recognizes the benefit of good regulation," she said. "It provides the industry a good safety net, as well."
Mr. DiMare, a third-generation tomato grower based in Ruskin, Fla., said food safety wasn't even a concern for most of the 80-year span of the family business. His grandfather started it by peddling tomatoes in Boston, and the company, DiMare Inc., is one of the nation's biggest tomato companies. He and his father, Paul, and their extended family grow and pack tomatoes in states from California and Florida to South Carolina.
In the 1990s, after fresh produce was linked to food-borne-illness outbreaks, Mr. DiMare said he started receiving letters from buyers asking if his food-safety procedures were reviewed by a third party. Over the years, food-safety concerns have heightened. Now, buyers from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to McDonald's Corp. and Walt Disney Co. are requiring different safety standards and independent inspections.
"We don't want 50 different standards, but that's what's happening right now," he said.
Some of the requirements are onerous, such as posting a staffer full time outside bathrooms to monitor employee hand-washing. Each review on average costs Mr. DiMare $3,000, and each pest-control program for each packing facility costs $12,000 a year. Last year, overwhelmed by the paperwork, he hired a full-time food-safety director to answer requests, train employees and, among other things, conduct surprise visits to the hand-washing station to enforce the rules.
Mr. DiMare hopes a uniform government standard will simplify the process. After a 2004 Salmonella outbreak involving Roma tomatoes that sickened 561 people in 18 states and Canada, he joined other growers to push for tougher government food-safety standards through the Florida Tomato Committee, a quasi-government marketing group.
Reggie Brown, the group's manager, says the industry tried federal regulators first. But the Agriculture Department, under which the tomato committee was formed, said it wasn't clear that the law creating such groups gave it the power to mandate food safety. And the cash-strapped FDA, which had warned the group to improve food safety, declined itself to impose more regulations, Mr. Brown recalls.
Dr. Aller, a 20-year veteran in government regulation, was surprised when growers asked for more regulation last year. "It isn't something you expect," she said. "The industry is genuinely concerned and generously seeking that oversight."