A new program established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will give international food importers with proven food safety track records a break.

The FDA’s Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP) will be a fee-based program that is expected to benefit both importers and consumers in a number of ways. Importers who choose to join the program must prove that they maintain robust records and have an exemplary supply chain management system in place. In return, those importers will be rewarded with expedited entry for imported goods. The consumer benefit is that by expediting safe items more swiftly, the FDA will have more time to focus on imported foods that are most likely to present a potential risk to public health.

VQIP goes hand in hand with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s promise to align imported food safety standards with those that are set for domestically produced foods.

The program is currently undergoing draft guidance that will explain to the industry how this planned program will work. FDA is issuing a notice in the Federal Register announcing the availability of a draft guidance entitled “Draft Guidance for Industry on the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program for Food Importers and Guidelines in Consideration of the Burden of the VQIP Fee Amounts on Small Business.”

In addition, the Notice of Availability provides a preliminary estimate of the fee for the program and requests comment on whether and how this amount would be a burden for small businesses.

There will be a public comment period of 75 days on the draft guidance and the guidelines related to the burden of fees on small businesses. After comments are considered and the guidance finalized, the program is expected to be open for applications in January 2018 to allow enough time for a facility to be certified under FDA’s Accredited Third Party Certification program.