A consensus is building among government and food industry officials that the fix for the country’s import safety system is likely to require better-targeted inspections, though not necessarily more of them.
Recently, Mike Leavitt, secretary of health and human services and chairman of a panel established by President Bush to study the safety of imported food, reflected that point of view when he said: “We simply cannot inspect our way to safety.”
Leavitt was speaking in a packed auditorium at the Department of Agriculture, where the Interagency Working Group on Import Safety heard from more than 40 speakers. The panel is compiling a list of recommendations that is expected to be issued by next month and is likely to include an emphasis on using technology to target risky importers and coordinating oversight among agencies.
The idea that inspections need not be increased has been challenged by consumer advocates and those in Congress who have proposed a series of reforms to the food safety system, including importer fees and consolidated oversight under a single agency. They consider increased inspection necessary but acknowledge that the Food and Drug Administration’s budget makes that difficult under current circumstances.
Instead, the import safety panel is expected to push for expanded use of technology to more quickly identify risky imports. Leavitt has supported the use of technology at the border that could read the contents of a sports drink bottle, for example, looking for potentially toxic chemicals without opening it. The FDA is developing a food-safety strategy to be unveiled this fall that would rely on risk-based inspection but has not asked for more resources to pay for more inspections.
But increasing inspections remains the cornerstone of many of the congressional proposals under consideration, along with empowering the FDA to mandate recalls. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, have both proposed charging importers a fee that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars and help fund more inspections. Supporters of the legislation say that although increasing inspections may not be enough to tackle the entire food safety problem, it is critical to the process.
“We need more inspections at foreign factories or processing plants as well as inspections at our ports of entry,” Donald L. Mays, senior director of product safety at Consumers Union, told the panel.
Which viewpoints prevail may depend on how much lawmakers are able to accomplish before the end of the year. In the short term, consumers may see more resources for the FDA and other regulatory agencies, said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. More systematic restructuring of the food safety system, including consolidating oversight under a single agency, will take time, she said. “We need to beef up every area of food safety,” she said.
Source: The Washington Post