WASHINGTON - Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, who has been working to open Food and Drug Administration offices in China, said yesterday that he believes a similar office should be opened in Central America.
Leavitt, emphasizing that he was not conveying administration policy, said that he believes the FDA should station inspectors in Central America because of the region's leading role in supplying fruits and vegetables to the United States.
The secretary plans to discuss the issue, as well as other possible steps to improve the safety of food shipments, with counterparts from El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and other Central American countries at a conference scheduled for next month.
Without going into detail, Leavitt said he discussed strengthening product safety with health ministers from Central America and other countries at the World Health Assembly in Geneva early this week,
Food shipments from Central America periodically raise safety issues. Most recently, the FDA linked cantaloupes from Honduras to a salmonella outbreak causing 50 illnesses in 16 states.
Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, said that establishing overseas offices was a first step toward improving the quality of the many fruits and vegetables imported from Central America.
"It's not a matter of having an office - it's what the people in that office are going to do. Are they going to just answer questions or are they going to visit and inspect plants on a day-to-day basis?" Doyle said.
A spate of recalls involving tainted pet food and other dangerous products from China prompted the Bush administration to launch an import safety initiative last year. The administration wants to ensure that imports are safe before they are shipped to the United States, rather than waiting to find flaws when they arrive. It envisions achieving that goal by depending upon American importers, third-party certifiers and a small cadre of overseas-based inspectors.
Congressional Democrats say the administration also needs to give the FDA more powers and funding.
Speaking shortly after returning from his latest trip to China, Leavitt said he was optimistic the government there would approve the opening of three FDA offices soon. He expects to work out the details of agreements to improve the safety of drugs, medical devices, food and feed by next month.
After completing arrangements, Leavitt said, his "next priority" would be establishing a similar office in India, a leading supplier of drugs and drug ingredients. The U.S. government is helping Indian authorities establish their own food and drug agency and related laws, Leavitt said.