What is the bioterrorism act?

Bioterrorism Act: Title III

Protecting the food and drug supply of the United States is vital to public safety. The bird flu and mad cow disease scares in recent years showed just how vulnerable a nation can be if its livestock is tainted. The same can be said for produce. Salmonella outbreaks from bad tomatoes have been big news in 2008. The FDA runs Title III in four major areas:

  • Registration of food facilities: this includes every company that processes, manufactures and packs, distributes, receives or holds food consumed by humans and animals.
  • Prior notice of imported food: advance notice must be given to the FDA for any food shipment entering the country.
  • Establishment and maintenance of records: All companies or people, who process, manufacture and pack, distribute, receive or hold food must keep records that identify where the food came from and where it's going.
  • Administrative detention: this allows the FDA and the CBP to seize any shipme¬≠nt they decide threatens public health.

    Mad cow
    Michel Porro/Getty Images
    Workers test for mad cow disease.

Registration of food processing facilities helps keep the food supply safe. Knowing what and where products are being shipped goes a long way toward tracking and containing contaminated food. Online registration is free and available around-the-clock. If a facility can't do so online, it can also register by mail. There are a few organizations and facilities that don't have to register:

  • Farms
  • Retail food services
  • Restaurants
  • Nonprofit organizations that prepare or distribute food
  • Fishing boats that don't process their catch
  • Facilities regulated entirely by the USDA

Prior to Title III's implementation in October 2003, the federal government projected that more than 400,000 facilities around the world would need to register. Noncompliance results in civil or criminal charges, and the facility is shut down immediately.

Before the BTA, any incoming food shipments were checked and verified when they reached the U.S. border. The FDA must receive prior notice of these shipments. This gives the FDA time to go over the information before the food reaches the border. It also gives the FDA a chance to move staff around to ensure that a thorough inspection can be made on larger shipments. If the FDA isn't notified by noon the day before a shipment arrives, the food is held at the border or port of entry until an inspection can take place. Shippers are also required to submit their cargo online.

Title III also requires that all food shipment records are kept for at least two years. Many companies already had these procedures in place, but the time requirement makes sure that every shipment could be traced for a longer period of time if necessary.

The final provision of Title III of the BTA is pretty simple. If the FDA or CBP has any credible evidence that a food shipment is contaminated or a threat to public health, they can seize the shipment. They can then hold it in "administrative detention" at a secure facility for up to 30 days. The food is inspected more thoroughly there until it is labeled safe for consumption.

We'll take a look at Title IV of the BTA on the following page.