WASHINGTON -- President Bush proposed yesterday that the government's powers to prevent the sale of unsafe food, toys and other imports in the United States be vastly expanded, including the stationing of inspectors abroad and the authorization of food recalls.
Bush called for tougher inspections of the riskiest imports, companies and countries, as well as steeper fines for violators. Under the president's proposal, the Food and Drug Administration would have the power to recall tainted food, instead of having to persuade companies to act.
"The American people expect our system of import safety to be strong and effective, and we will continue working to make sure that it is," Bush said, presenting the 86-page plan.
Recalls this year of contaminated pet food, substandard tires and toys with elevated lead levels imported from China infuriated consumers and deepened worries about the U.S. government's policing of the $2 trillion in imports now entering the country.
Now they've prompted the Bush administration to abandon its anti-regulatory impulses and acknowledge the need for stronger government policing of imports and perhaps more federal spending.
"There is a clear need for government to play a role," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, who led the task force that developed the president's plan.
Leavitt said the recommendations aim to shift monitoring for safety flaws to overseas manufacturing plants from the 300 U.S. ports, something that many in industry and government have been requesting because of the rapid growth in imports.
Much of the burden, Leavitt said, would rest with the manufacturers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission could require makers to demonstrate that they're meeting safety standards before shipping products to the United States.
Similarly, the FDA could require producers to take specific steps to prevent contamination of food and certify the safety of high-risk products before sending them to the United States. The agency also could bar shipments from companies that fail to provide access to records.
FDA officials, who have been developing a food protection plan in the months since bacterial outbreaks in bagged spinach, Peter Pan peanut butter and Taco Bell lettuce, said the new powers and preventive approach also would apply to foods produced in the United States.
"Our food supply has changed, and we must change," said the FDA's commissioner, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, noting the rising production of food overseas and Americans' growing appetite for uncooked foods.
Bush pledged to implement many of the 50 recommendations by executive order and to work with Congress to pass new laws where needed.
Democrats have held hearings lambasting the government's monitoring -- one was taking place as Bush unveiled his plan -- and also have been developing their own safety proposals.
They recently called for the resignation of Nancy A. Nord, acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, who had resisted further action, noting the same reasons given by industry.
Yesterday, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has called for tighter regulation, praised the task force report. "The recommendations in this report, if acted upon, will help remove many of the hurdles that have prevented meaningful reform of our food and product safety systems," he said.
By offering his plan, Bush improves the chances that Congress will enact legislation while ensuring that he has a voice in its final shape, analysts said. In particular, the Bush administration wants to avoid measures that would anger foreign countries and prompt retaliatory action against U.S. exports.
Leavitt emphasized that the proposal was not aimed at punishing China or any other country but toward reassuring American consumers. "We want our markets to be open. We'd like to have access to theirs," he said.
Under the Bush plan, U.S. inspectors overseas would work with foreign partners. Foreign producers of high-quality goods and importers buying from them would be rewarded by speeding the entry of their products into the United States.
The Bush approach drew criticism from Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America, who said administration officials "need to focus much more on improving the laws and less on forging partnerships."
Under the president's plan, problem firms could face fines of up to $10 million, as well as forfeiture of any equipment used in the production, sale and shipment of tainted goods, but Weintraub said the penalties weren't nearly tough enough.
Also attracting criticism was the proposal's failure to specify how much more money the government would need to ensure the safety of imports.
When updating progress in September, Leavitt said the proposal would come with a dollar amount. By leaving that to later budget talks, the administration left up in the air whether the plan will get the needed funding.
An FDA inspector working in China could cost $500,000 a year, said William K. Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who has been lobbying for more funding on behalf of industry and other groups.
He expressed optimism, however, that the president and Congress would reach agreement now that Bush has embraced taking action.
"That's a good groundwork for movement," Hubbard said. "It means they're not going to fight over concepts. They're going to fight over details."
The task force calls for:
Giving the Food and Drug Administration the power to order recalls of unsafe foods, rather than relying on voluntary recalls.
Stationing U.S. inspectors overseas.
Tougher fines and other penalties for violators, while rewarding good companies with quicker access to the United States.