From: Missy Ryan, Reuters
Published September 28, 2007 04:05 PM

Senator seeks to overhaul food safety system

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The assistant Senate majority leader says Congress should phase out the splintered U.S. food safety system and come up with a better way to ensure the food Americans eat is safe.

Assistant leader Dick Durbin told a food-policy conference on Friday that he would try to attach the phase-out to the farm policy law being written this year. Twelve agencies share authority over food safety at present.

"I hope this is going to be the kind of catalyst that is going to move us toward change," Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told a food policy conference on Friday.

There have been repeated complaints over the years that food safety operations are fractured and underfunded. Durbin's plan would give Congress a year to come up with a new system and a year to put it in place.

"If the new system isn't any better, we can always go back to the broken system we have now ... but we need to break this inertia," he said in prepared remarks.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the farm bill in July. The Senate Agriculture Committee has yet to write a bill.

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In a year marked by a wave of unsettling reports of unsafe imports, including toys, seafood, and pet food, the reliability of imported food and other goods is a growing concern among Americans.

Food production in the United States has had its own problems, with contaminated spinach and other food making headlines. Nationally, food-borne illness kills 5,000 people a year, Durbin said, and makes 76 million sick.

"It's outdated, under-funded and overwhelmed ... full of both wasteful overlap and dangerous gaps in oversight ... and in desperate need of additional resources and updated authority," Durbin said.

Responsibility for inspecting and keeping track of food imports is currently split between the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department, and other authorities.

The FDA oversees about 80 percent of food imports, but a small inspection team gets its hands on just a small fraction of that.

Durbin is also proposing a fee on all imported food, which would fund stepped-up inspection, and a single food safety agency, but neither idea has received much traction so far. It is unclear whether a radical step like sunsetting existing agencies would be more successful.

The food and import safety scares prompted President George W. Bush to set up a high-level panel, which is now drafting recommendations for improvement. Detailed suggestions are expected in November.

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