Guarding health

The Baltimore Sun

Americans will gain important protections from life-threatening contamination of food and drugs once federal regulators are given an extra $275 million to inspect imported products abroad to ensure they are safe. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would provide the money in a bill intended to fund the war in Iraq. Congress and President Bush should confirm that prudent action. Otherwise, consumers will lack adequate safeguards from potentially unsafe foreign products for at least another year.

The funding came after 81 people here were killed by a contaminant detected in a widely used blood thinner called heparin. The contaminant cost $9 a pound compared with $900 for heparin, and federal drug inspectors said they believed it was deliberately added at a factory in China. The heparin case sparked widespread calls from both parties in Congress for major changes in the way the Food and Drug Administration functions and is financed.

The Bush administration has added a limited amount of funding for foreign inspections, but it is far from enough to keep up with the rapid growth in drug and food imports. Agency officials resisted telling Congress how much was needed to do an adequate job until the FDA commissioner, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, was pressed to give his professional opinion - he is a doctor. Protecting the health and safety of the American people should be a higher priority.

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