WASHINGTON -- After months of revelations about deadly contamination of produce, peanut butter and pet food, and with consumer confidence in what they're eating falling to an 18-year low, Washington is suddenly turning its attention to the problem of food safety.
Whether higher visibility will translate into major changes in the way the government protects the nation's food supply is less clear, however.
"There is a greater intensity and depth of interest than I've seen in 30 years," said Carol Tucker Foreman, who worked on food issues in the administration of President Jimmy Carter and as an industry consultant, and is now director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.
Members of Congress are looking for ways to plug gaps in the nation's food safety system. Aides say leaders in both houses are scouring for more funding as a way of providing better regulation and additional protection.
"We don't need to wait until animals start dying or, God forbid, people," Rep. Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican, said yesterday during the second congressional hearing on food safety in as many weeks.
Congress is talking about revamping the food safety system after years of largely ignoring the warnings of its watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, which issued a report in February designating the area a high risk.
Bacterial outbreaks in bagged spinach, Taco Bell lettuce and Peter Pan peanut butter have heightened concerns about food safety. Fears intensified when cats and dogs died in March after eating tainted pet food. Investigators think Chinese producers contaminated pet food ingredients with industrial chemicals.
"I hope this incident will send something of a clarion call for better food inspections," said Rep. Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat.
An online Harris survey released this week by the Food Marketing Institute found that the percentage of shoppers who were confident about the safety of supermarket food had fallen to 66 percent, a decline of 16 percentage points since last year and the lowest since 1989. Because of such concerns, 38 percent said, they had stopped buying certain foods during the previous year.
China has reportedly begun cracking down, requiring food exporters to meet international standards and detaining managers from the two companies that shipped tainted and mislabeled wheat gluten to North American makers of pet food.
Some members of Congress have pointed to China's role in the pet food scare as they call for protectionist curbs on imports and for bolstering American farmers and food producers.
Dr. David W.K. Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's new food safety czar, reminded lawmakers at the hearing that previous outbreaks involved domestic food and that Americans' appetite for a year-round supply of fruit, fish and vegetables depends on a steady supply of imports.
Acheson said he was studying what new powers and additional resources the FDA might need to prevent additional problems with homegrown products and to closely monitor imports.
Congressional debate has focused on expanding the FDA's power to inspect and recall products, improving the detection of food-related illnesses and labeling products with country of origin.
The Senate passed yesterday a measure that would improve safety surveillance of food for humans and pets, require food-makers to keep better records and establish national labeling standards.
Some Democrats are pressing for a more radical overhaul that would consolidate into one department food safety responsibilities that are spread among 15 federal agencies.
"What is most building support for our effort is the collapse of our food safety system," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who oversees a committee that funds food agencies, said this week.
Support for the proposals varies among trade associations, consumer groups and government officials. The FDA's Acheson told a House agriculture panel that consolidation wouldn't improve food protection.
The FDA's food budget has not kept up with inflation during the past four years. Consumer and industry groups have been lobbying Congress for more funding.
"It's quite hypocritical to have Congress be upset about the lack of work FDA and USDA are doing when Congress doesn't give them the money to do the work they are supposed to be doing," said Susan M. Stout, vice president of federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association.
Two Democratic leaders, Durbin and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, are hoping to secure more FDA funding, their aides said.