WASHINGTON -- Government inspectors don't have the option of checking most imported food under the current U.S. safety system and often have an average of only 30 seconds to decide whether a shipment merits examination, congressional investigators said yesterday.
The investigators described the government's system for assuring the safety of imported fruit, vegetables and seafood as inadequate and said the agency's proposed reorganization might only make matters worse.
Their testimony, before a House panel that oversees the Food and Drug Administration, follows a recent string of scares, recalls and alerts involving domestic and imported food, mainly from China, that has intensified fears about the government's ability to safeguard the nation's food supply.
Only 20 percent of imported food is subject to review by FDA inspectors around the country, congressional investigators found. Officials in Washington stipulate which shipments may be inspected, based on potential risk, because they lack the resources to inspect all food imports. The inspectors must then decide which products on the list deserve a close review.
But they have little time to do so, the investigators said. For example, FDA inspectors in San Francisco must typically pass judgment on 600 shipments of food and 350 shipments of medical devices, drugs and chemicals every day, leaving them less than 30 seconds to make a decision.
"It's physically impossible for that office to do more than a cursory review," said David Nelson, senior investigator with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
He told the committee's oversight panel that FDA's plan for consolidating its laboratories for testing food would further diminish government monitoring.
The agency has proposed shutting seven of its 13 laboratories around the country. The aim, said FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, is to modernize the remaining laboratories and make more FDA employees available to conduct inspections.
Von Eschenbach defended his agency's food safety program and outlined several steps taken recently to enhance its efforts. Among them: working with Chinese officials to improve the quality of shipments and creating a "food safety czar" to develop a reform plan.
The FDA monitors 80 percent of the country's food supply -- everything except meat, poultry and eggs. But it has been repeatedly criticized in the past year after bacterial outbreaks in domestic products and the discovery of tainted pet food imported from China.
More recently, investigators have found other tainted products from China, including toothpaste and seafood.
China's trade and monetary policies have come under increasing attack in Congress. Yesterday, Republicans and Democrats singled out China's food producers for criticism during a 5 1/2 -hour hearing.
They also said the U.S. must take additional steps to ensure the safety of imported food.
"We have to get this right, and we have to get it right sooner rather than later," said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican. He suggested the FDA work more closely with food regulators and producers overseas, and divide its staff between domestic and foreign inspectors.
Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said he would soon propose legislation that would increase the FDA's food safety budget so it can inspect more imported food.
Congressional investigators said the FDA lacks inspectors at most of the 325 ports receiving food shipments. By contrast, all imports of meat, poultry and egg products monitored by the Agriculture Department must enter through 39 ports, including those in the Baltimore area, according to an Agriculture department spokesman.
Another flaw, investigators said, is the government's reliance on the goodwill of industry and the private laboratories that importers hire to certify the quality of imports that could be unsafe.
When the agency finds widespread problems with the quality of imported food products, it can detain the shipments until importers prove their safety.
But investigators said the FDA rarely double-checks the testing. The agency also doesn't accredit or monitor the private laboratories to make sure they use sound methods and report accurate results, investigators said.