FMI CRITICAL OF U.S. HANDLING OF IMPORT BAN

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Food Marketing Institute here said U.S. food-safety agencies' handling of potentially tainted European foods could needlessly alarm U.S. consumers, to the detriment of shoppers and supermarkets alike.At issue is the U.S. ban on the importation from various European Union member nations of poultry, pork and egg products that may contain dioxin, a highly carcinogenic chemical.

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Food Marketing Institute here said U.S. food-safety agencies' handling of potentially tainted European foods could needlessly alarm U.S. consumers, to the detriment of shoppers and supermarkets alike.

At issue is the U.S. ban on the importation from various European Union member nations of poultry, pork and egg products that may contain dioxin, a highly carcinogenic chemical. The action, coordinated jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, came in the wake of Belgium's late May disclosure that fat contaminated with these chemicals had found its way into millions of pounds of animal feed.

The European Union moved to require member nations to trace the movement of this contaminated feed, identify all food that may have been contaminated, and destroy it, remove it from European supermarket shelves or recall it.

Since early June, the United States has ordered all suspect European meat, egg and poultry products held in port warehouses until these products can be tested for chemical contamination. The USDA and FDA, which issued the order effectively banning these imports, regulate commerce in fresh product and processed product, respectively.

In late June, the FDA added to the detainment list any products made with milk from Belgium, while the USDA removed Danish hams from the list, permitting their importation again.

In addition, on July 2, the USDA said it was immediately releasing for distribution here meat and poultry products from Finland, Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The FMI was none too happy with the way the USDA initially handled the contamination issue. Timothy Hammonds, FMI president, wrote June 10 to Dan Glickman, USDA secretary, expressing concern that the agency acted precipitously, while the FDA held off embargoing food products in its jurisdiction to study the matter further.

"Our concern is that there have been inconsistent messages from the two agencies," an FMI spokeswomen said. This leads, she added, to consumers hearing stories "that at best are sensational and at worst are totally inaccurate."

The two agencies subsequently did a better job at coordinating their message, the spokeswomen said. She added that the FMI had not sent its member retailers notices or advisories that could be posted in stores, a course of action the agencies had suggested. She also said she did not know of any supermarkets that had taken such actions on their own.

A spokeswoman for Glickman declined to comment on Hammonds' letter or his concerns.

Since no federal agency ordered any food-product recall as a result of the possible contamination, the FMI spokeswoman said it would not suggest retailers pull product. "This puts you in a perilous circumstance of potentially being sued for withdrawing a product without reason," she said.

Jill Hollingsworth, the trade group's vice president of food-safety programs, said that while the two U.S. food agencies are testing European products under detention at ports, the agencies are waiting for the EU's "assurances that the problems are gone," before consideration will be given to lifting the import ban.

Criticism has emerged within the European Parliament and from individual EU member states about the lack of any unified mechanism for monitoring food safety and ordering quick corrective actions. For example, health officials in some European nations expressed great concern that Belgium health bureaucrats allegedly waited several weeks before informing the European Commission about the feed-contamination problem.

Some European leaders are beginning to suggest that food safety needs to become a global concern. At the June meeting of G8 leaders in Cologne, Germany, French President Jacques Chirac proposed the creation of an international science council to address issues of food safety.

European consumer groups for years have complained about the lack of any unified food-safety and inspection organization within the EU.