How to Choose an Import Agent for FDA-Regulated Products

Enlisting an import agent is a basic requirement for importers of FDA-regulated products. Import agents are the frontlines of communication with the FDA, assisting with the submission of required registrations and listings as well as support with questions posed by the Agency on imported products. 

At a minimum, the import agent must provide basic services stipulated by the FDA, but U.S. agents can also be much more, facilitating registrations in the FURLS database, assisting with FDA inspection preparation, and more. 

With all the challenges to importing products into the U.S., and with so many firms positioning themselves as offering U.S. import agent services, choosing one with the right expertise and level of responsiveness will go a long way when working with the FDA.

What are the Requirements for an FDA Import Agent? 

Though the requirements of an import agent’s services are straightforward, the decision of which U.S. agent to choose can be monumental for a foreign establishment.

In some cases, foreign establishments are comfortable working directly with the FDA and designate a U.S. agent just to meet the FDA’s basic requirements.

Other foreign establishments look to their import agent to provide guidance and expertise on FDA regulations and imports. 

The most basic U.S. agent services include: 

  • Assisting the FDA in communications with the foreign establishment, particularly when FDA is unable to contact the foreign establishment directly or expeditiously. 
  • Assisting the FDA in scheduling inspections of the foreign establishment.

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Who Can be an Import Agent? 

  • The FDA will only accept designated U.S. import agents who reside in the U.S. and receive mail at a physical address.
  • The U.S. agent must also have someone available to answer the phone during business hours. Post office boxes and answering services are not permitted.  

FDA considers information or documentation provided to the import agent equivalent to providing them to the foreign establishment.

So, it is important to choose an import agent who understands their responsibilities both to FDA and to you. Timely two-way communication with the FDA is critical to ensuring smooth business and imports. The FDA will always provide deadlines by which they expect responses to their requests. When import agent communication is delayed, your business can be negatively affected.

Choosing an Import Agent with Regulatory Expertise 

Foreign establishments looking for support beyond the basic U.S. import agent requirements may find this in consultants who provide layers of expertise and service.

Ensure as you weigh the benefits of any additional services provided by U.S. agents that their expertise is relevant to your business. Choosing an expert in pharmaceutical imports, for instance, may not be of benefit to an importer of food.

Choose an Agent With FDA Unified Registration and Listing System (FURLS Database) Experience 

In addition to facilitating communication between the FDA and a foreign establishment, FDA import agents with relevant regulatory expertise can also provide guidance about FDA requirements.

For example, foreign establishments are required to register the facilities in which their products are made with the FDA via the FDA Unified Registration and Listing System (FURLS database).

U.S. agents with FURLS accounts and who understand how to navigate the FURLS database system may be able to provide that service.

FDA FURLS Database login

Your Import Agent Should Understand the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP) 

Importers who demonstrate exemplary records of safety, including suppliers, may be eligible for FDA’s VQIP, a pay-to-play program that expedites food imports.

Knowledge of the VQIP program and its benefits as well as the ability to assess supplier documentation for eligibility consideration may be of interest when choosing your import agent.

Applications and eligibility into the VQIP program are arduous; an agent with knowledge of this program will help you determine if it is right for your business.

Know How to Prepare for FDA Audits and Inspections 

FDA’s routine, random, and for-cause inspections cause angst for any company, both inside the U.S. and out. Import agents with histories of successfully navigating FDA inspections in your commodity area and former FDA inspectors or investigators who previously conducted these inspections can be instrumental in helping you prepare.  

  • Are your SOPs thorough and documented?  
  • Are your batch records and change control adequately recorded?  
  • By what measures do you vet your suppliers to ensure their compliance with FDA regulations?
  • Is your facility maintained in a manner commensurate with the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) established by the FDA for your type of products? 

These are just a few of the many questions you may have regarding compliance with FDA regulations. Whether your import agent is a regulatory expert and able to provide assistance in these areas or you seek assistance elsewhere, your ability to import FDA-regulated products into the U.S. will depend on these and other criteria. 

Designating Your Import Agent in the FURLS Database 

As part of the registration process, the foreign establishment is required to notify FDA of the import agent’s contact information, including name, address, telephone and fax numbers, and email address. 

For medical device registrations, the foreign establishment has the option to also designate the U.S. import agent as its official correspondent.

Once the FDA has been notified of the agent, the agent identified will have a finite number of days to complete an automated process sent via email by the FDA to confirm their consent to act as a representative/liaison on behalf of the foreign establishment (30 days for food facility confirmations, 10 days for medical device confirmations).

Notify the FDA if Your Import Agent Changes

If there is a change to the import agent, including basic contact information, the FDA must be notified within 30 days. In the event a new agent is designated, that new agent must also submit to the FDA their consent to act as the foreign firm’s liaison. 

Should the FDA determine that documentation provided by the foreign establishment about an import agent is inaccurate, incomplete, or that the agent does not meet FDA’s residential requirements, the Agency will send a Deficiency Letter to the foreign establishment requesting specific corrections to be made within 30 days.

Managing FDA imports is a serious business, and the effectiveness of an import agent can make or break a foreign establishment’s ability to work with the FDA and sell products in the U.S. Decide in which areas you would like additional assistance, and if you would like that assistance to be provided by your agent. Then ask questions of those import agents that you are considering. You are hopefully choosing a long-term partner that will help you to grow your U.S.-based business. 

If you need a U.S. import agent for your imports, reach out to our regulatory arm, EAS Consulting Group. 

Topics: Cosmetic, OTC & Personal Care, Food & Beverage, FDA Import, US Agent