Panel to find ways to make imports safer

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush created a Cabinet-level panel yesterday to improve the safety of imported food and other products, responding to concerns raised after tainted toothpaste and pet food reached the United States from China.

He named Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, to head the panel and gave it 60 days to review U.S. regulations and safety procedures in other countries and come up with ways to ensure the quality of imports.

"Food safety and consumer safety is a serious issue," Bush said during a photo session at the end of the panel's first meeting, held at the White House.

The issue is a difficult one for the administration. On one hand, Bush, a proponent of free trade, favors developing a U.S. market in an economically thriving China. On the other hand, he cannot ignore the spate of reports of shoddy safety precautions and possibly deceit in Chinese manufacturing and food processing.

With U.S. officials and consumers growing wary of Chinese goods in recent weeks, China has launched public efforts to restore confidence in its products. It also announced Saturday that some U.S. processed meat had shown signs of contamination and imports from several large U.S. food companies were blocked.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration said it would block Chinese catfish, basa, dace, shrimp and eel, after tests of the farmed seafood found contamination with drugs. Dangerous substances have been found in Chinese exports of juice and toothpaste, and Chinese tires have been recalled for safety reasons.

"This is not a slap at China," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said. "We take food imports from 150 countries around the world, and we monitor them all."

At the same time, he acknowledged that it was possible, in the words of one questioner, "to connect the dots to China."

While recognizing that new restrictions could increase trade tensions, the White House spokesman said: "It's important to maintain the safety and security of this country by making sure that things that you import meet the basic health standards."

The group's makeup reflects the diverse government agencies that play a role in bringing food and other goods from foreign manufacturers into the U.S. home, regulate the trade and deal with its repercussions. Besides Leavitt, Bush named the secretaries of state, treasury, agriculture, commerce, transportation and homeland security; the attorney general; the budget director; the U.S. trade representative; the Environmental Protection Agency chief; and the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

But what the group can accomplish is unclear.

Consumer groups and industry representatives say that unless the government is willing to significantly boost spending to hire more inspectors and regulators -- and give them greater powers -- there is little that can be done to improve safeguards for imported goods.

The Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for all food imports except meat and poultry, has only 625 inspectors to monitor the entire food supply, whether home-grown or shipped from overseas. FDA inspectors are assigned according to a triage system that tries to anticipate risk. All in all, fewer than 1 percent of food imports are inspected.

An internal FDA analysis conducted last summer found that the agency's $450 million budget for its foods program has failed to keep pace with rising personnel costs for professional staff.

It concluded the program would have needed $176 million more this year to provide roughly the same level of service it did in 2003.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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