From: Christopher Doering
Published September 27, 2007 12:52 PM

Lawmakers Say Food Safety System In Crisis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans are skeptical of imported food and other products after repeated safety scares, said lawmakers on Wednesday, who want to give the Food and Drug Administration more power to inspect imports and recall defective ones.

The "system has pretty much fallen apart from top to bottom," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. "People are shocked by the continuing number of food safety issues we have."

Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the full committee, said there was "a significant crisis in confidence of imported food and other products. The Michigan Democrat, whose committee oversees the FDA, is sponsor of a bill to increase the agency's inspection of imports and to recall unacceptable products.

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The FDA is in charge of 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables and processed foods, and has been criticized as being too passive in handling the growing surge of imports into the United States. Total imports, including food, have doubled since 2000 to $2 trillion annually.

"We think there is a lot of room for improvement," said Randall Lutter, FDA's associate commissioner for policy and planning. "We are developing very actively and very vigorously a food protection strategy."

FDA said it wants to transform itself from one that reacts to situations, largely through inspections and interventions.

The new "risk-based" strategy would include inspections as part of a broader program that looks at the life cycle of the product including where and how it was produced, where it was stored and previous history.

"It is obvious," said Dr. David Acheson, FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, that FDA needs more authority to do its job.

Although food imports grow at 15 percent a year, FDA inspected about 1 percent of the goods under its purview in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2006. An estimated 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported.

In particular, the safety of food and other products from China has come under attack in recent months after reports of seafood containing banned antibiotics, contaminated toothpaste and melamine, a chemical used in plastics and fertilizers, being found in U.S. pet food.

Along with giving FDA power to order a recall, Dingell's "food and drug import safety" bill would require country-of-origin labels on imports and would allow imports to enter at only 13 ports, all located near an FDA testing lab.

It also would require fees to be collected on imported foods with 90 percent of the funds used to beef-up food inspections domestically and overseas.

"In recent years, we have seen a slide towards lax oversight and neglect of safety of imported products at the Food and Drug Administration," Jean Halloran, director of Consumers Union's food policy initiatives, said in a letter. "The provisions contained in (the bill) will go a long way towards assuring imported food safety."

U.S. food companies, concerned the recent import scares may turn away consumers, have asked for tougher government guidelines on how companies verify imported foods or inputs; along with more money given to the FDA, widely seen as understaffed and underfunded.

The Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, a trade group representing the food, beverage and consumer products industry, said it supported giving FDA more resources, but that extra funding should come from taxes, not user fees.

For its part, the Bush administration has established a panel to recommend steps to ensure the safety of imports in an effort to restore public confidence. The detailed recommendations are expected in November.

 
 

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