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When I was in Shanghai, China, a few weeks ago for Petfood Forum China and Pet Fair Asia, I was somewhat surprised by the number of people who asked about the US presidential election on November 6. I suppose I underestimated how integrated China is becoming into the global economy and political scene, and how much news from outside the country reaches its citizens despite government censorship and blocking of certain media. (Or maybe I had just been hoping to escape the incessant campaigning, political ads and pundits Americans have been bombarded with for so many months now.)
Most of the people who asked about the election were just curious in general -- but for those who work in petfood anywhere in the world, one question might have even more relevance: Will the results of the US presidential election affect how, or even if, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is implemented?
As a recap, FSMA was signed into law by President Obama in January 2011 and intended to be the most sweeping overhaul of the US food safety system since 1938. Some elements of the act went into effect immediately; many others, especially those that affect petfood, required new regulations to be written, ideally agreed on by regulators and industry, and funded. Much of that has happened, but the regulations have been stuck in Washington, DC, gridlock -- which usually slows things down to a crawl; when a presidential election is near, everything essentially comes to a standstill, as legislators, government agencies and regulators wait to see if the outcome will change the direction or even survival of pending regulations.
A few weeks ago I sat in on a webinar presented by Dr. David Acheson, a partner with food safety consulting firm Leavitt Partners and former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, Acheson was one of the lead authors of FSMA, which had been in the works since the massive petfood recalls of 2007 and other recalls of human foods around that time. (Note: Acheson will also be a co-presenter for a Petfood Industry webinar in early December; watch this site and your email for information soon.)
The webinar, "Insights on Rapidly Changing Landscape of Food Safety and Quality Assurance" (hosted and sponsored by Safety Chain Software), was aimed at the human food industry but had many insights and tips for petfood producers, too. Almost immediately, Acheson addressed FSMA's fate relevant to the election and said -- rather undramatically -- that regardless of who the next US president is, the law's regulations will likely move forward.
If President Obama is re-elected, Acheson said, the regulations will probably proceed fairly quickly through their normal process. They are already written and have been evaluated for financial impact by the Office of Management and Budget; next they would be released for public comment, and those comments would be considered and possibly incorporated. Then the question of funding within the federal budget would come into play -- another issue entirely that may hinge on the elections at the Congressional level.
If Mitt Romney becomes president, Acheson sees a similar scenario, because the Obama administration would probably act very quickly to move on regulations and policies already in the pipeline before the new president took office in late January 2013. While Romney (or Congress) might seek to change some of those regulations or the entire law itself at some point, that would likely be far down the road because of much more pressing issues facing the country. (Funding would still be an issue, perhaps even more so.)
Sort of anti-climactic, isn't it? But however you might feel about FSMA and its fate, be aware that the elections next week might have far more reaching implications at the local and state level. For example, a proposition on the ballot in California is a labeling initiative aimed at providing consumers with information about "genetically engineered food," including petfood. The proposal would no longer allow any processed foods to be labeled as "natural," and retailers would be responsible for ensuring all processed foods containing any covered material are identified as “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.” For any product not so labeled, the proposal would require “a retailer generally must be able to document why that product is exempt from labeling.”
Many food industry and pet industry groups are fighting the proposition; according to the Pet Food Institute, one of the groups opposed, the latest polls show "no" votes have the edge at 50% to 39%. Dr. David Dzanis, who is based in California, will report on whether the proposition passed and what the outcome means for petfood labeling in his next column; it will posted on this site later next week and appear in the December issue of Petfood Industry.