WASHINGTON -- Agreeing that current safeguards have failed, Congress and the Bush administration are moving toward the creation of a new system for screening imported foods that would require companies to certify that their foreign suppliers meet U.S. standards.
The new system would place a much heavier burden for consumer safety on the American firms that import goods from China, Mexico and elsewhere.
The government would set the rules for the system, and the Food and Drug Administration would inspect more imports than it does now. But the bulk of the responsibility for ensuring safety would fall on industry.
The sharpest point of contention so far is a Democratic proposal to pay for more port-of-entry inspections by imposing a new fee on importers. Industry groups oppose the fee.
The Bush administration has said that it wants to reduce the strain on the severely overstretched system of inspections at ports. The new approach aims at building in scientifically sound methods for production, storage and shipping throughout the supply chain. An action plan is due next month.
"There is agreement that the current system of FDA inspections at the border doesn't work, and there is agreement that FDA needs additional resources," said William Hubbard, a spokesman for a coalition of groups trying to boost the agency's budget. "And there is a conceptual agreement that this prevention model is the way to go."
Although most food eaten in this country is produced here, a variety of produce and seafood is imported; so are an increasing number of ingredients in processed foods. The FDA has jurisdiction over many of such foods, while the Department of Agriculture oversees meat and poultry imports. This year's sweeping recall of pet food tainted by a contaminated ingredient imported from China focused attention on the porous nature of the current system and the resulting vulnerability of U.S. consumers.
Consumer groups don't want reforms to stop with imports. They say the safety of domestically produced foods must be addressed as well, pointing out that a recent hamburger recall involved a federally inspected domestic establishment and that a huge spinach recall involved produce grown in California.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, has called for creating an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services to take over the FDA's food safety role, with oversight of imported and domestic foods. Under her plan, however, the Agriculture Department would still be responsible for meat and poultry.
"I think there is real momentum in the nation for reform - addressing not only a rising flood of imports but also the serious need to re-examine our entire food safety system here at home," she said.
The food industry agrees that there is a problem with the current import system and has signaled that it is willing to accept new requirements.
"With respect to the safety of imported food, no one is arguing that we need to do nothing," said Stuart M. Pape, a Washington lawyer who represents the major food industry trade group. "I think everybody here agrees that the current system - the status quo - is intolerable."
His client, the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, recently proposed an import safety program that addressed several of the issues raised by the administration and by Congress:
Importers would be required to set up safety programs for their suppliers in accord with FDA guidelines for the minimum standard.
Importers with high-quality programs, who are willing to undertake extra testing and voluntarily share their data with the FDA, would be eligible for speedy processing at U.S. ports.
The United States would work with international organizations to establish comprehensive global safety standards for food as well as with individual nations seeking to improve their own programs.
The FDA budget would be increased so that more scientists and inspectors could be hired. Currently, only about 1 percent of food imports are inspected. Not only would the number of inspections increase, but they could be better targeted on suppliers about whom little is known or who have a record of problems.
Consumer groups have reacted positively.
The GMA proposal "signals areas of agreement on which solutions to our food safety problems can be built," Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in recent congressional testimony.
The Bush administration, in an interim report issued last month on its import safety initiative, said, "Producers and the importing community will play a key role ... by implementing preventive approaches and requiring these approaches from their suppliers."
Such preventive approaches usually consist of a detailed program for preventing food from being contaminated or spoiled at each key step in the chain from field to market. Government inspections would serve as a backstop and a check on the new preventive system.
To pay for more inspections, Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, has proposed a fee of up to $50 per shipment on imports. One shipping container of foods can contain many such individual shipments on which the fee would be assessed.
Dingell's legislation also incorporates some elements of the industry proposal, such as speedy entry for shipments from firms with superior standards.
It is estimated that the fee could raise as much as $500 million a year, allowing the hiring of enough inspectors to check about 10 percent of shipments, and sharply increasing the level of deterrence against shoddy or unscrupulous importers.
But the industry says the fee would amount to a tax and argues that the cost of food safety, like that of national defense, should be spread among all taxpayers.
Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Screening our food
Congress and the Bush administration are working toward a new system for screening imported foods that would require American companies to certify that their foreign suppliers meet U.S. standards. The new system would place a much heavier burden for consumer safety on U.S. firms that import goods from China, Mexico and elsewhere.