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Editorial: Midstate food industry looking ahead to new regs

Whether it's snack foods, canned mushrooms, dairy items or meats, Pennsylvania is a leading manufacturer of processed foods — much of which also is produced here.

What most consumers don't know, however, is that the commonwealth historically has been a leader in food safety standards as well. Pennsylvania, thanks to the leadership of pioneering Penn State professor William Frear, established food purity laws in 1902 that provided the model for the federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. That was the first law prohibiting the sale across state lines of adulterated or mislabeled food.

So stringent are Pennsylvania's consumer food protection standards, in fact, that "Reg. Penna. Dept. Agr." can be found on processed food products from around the world today — otherwise they can't be sold here.

Pennsylvania companies continue to lead as the food industry across the country prepares for compliance with the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011.

FSMA represents the first major change in national food safety law in 73 years. Giving the FDA new recall powers and oversight over food production, the act was prompted by an increasing number of major food-borne illness cases in the past decade, as well as heightened concern after 9/11 about bioterrorism and the safety of our food chain.

The focus is on preventing food-related health incidents. A significant component looming for food producers and processors is the required "traceability" of food sources — and the resulting paperwork. That means more expense and a greater chance of inadvertently running afoul of the law.

Yet those in the midstate's food industry say most will be ready, although the FDA is still in the comment period for implementation and won't be issuing final rules until fall. They've been paying attention, according to industry experts and trade associations, and while nobody loves more regulation, they accept the need for change.

And typical of the midstate sensibility, they've been helping each other. There's no question smaller companies will be hit hardest by compliance issues under the FSMA, but larger businesses have been sharing their knowledge gained from being further down the regulatory road.

It's good business sense, after all, since those smaller companies often are suppliers for the big players in the processing sector or they are managing complementary rather than competitive businesses. It's not about winners and losers, it's about learning from one another how to thrive in the face of increased regulation and consumer expectations. In that scenario, everybody wins.

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