WASHINGTON [FNS] -- Sampling imports as they arrive at U.S. docks is too late in the game to protect the country against tainted food, said public and private sector witnesses at the final two days of Congressional hearings investigating the safety of food imports.But with the quantity of such imports rising exponentially and tales of foodborne illnesses and fatalities increasing as well, the tough

WASHINGTON [FNS] -- Sampling imports as they arrive at U.S. docks is too late in the game to protect the country against tainted food, said public and private sector witnesses at the final two days of Congressional hearings investigating the safety of food imports.

But with the quantity of such imports rising exponentially and tales of foodborne illnesses and fatalities increasing as well, the tough question remains, What is the best way to protect American consumers from tainted foreign foods and the pathogens they contain?

After listening to testimony from 16 witnesses representing the Congressional, administrative, private and public health sectors, three possible approaches to answer that question seemed to emerge:

Funding: Add more Food and Drug Administration inspectors.

Equivalency: Increase FDA authority to allow the agency to investigate foreign food production sites to determine whether they meet certain U.S. sanitation standards before importation.

Revamping: Round up the food safety oversight now contained in 35 federal statutes and shared by six federal programs and create a single federal agency headed by one official to oversee the issue.

Speaking at the conclusion of the final hearing sponsored by the Senate's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Chairperson Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the eventual answer may lie in a combination of all three approaches.

Collins, whose committee plans to propose comprehensive food safety legislation next year, said she was unsure whether an entirely new system is needed, but acknowledged that at minimum, better coordination is needed between the agencies now overseeing the nation's food safety.

In the meantime, Collins said, some simple immediate fixes have surfaced, including: requiring FDA to stamp all rejected products to cut down an importer's ability to "port shop" his product; developing a tougher penalty schedule for illegal shipments; and finally, allowing the FDA to impose civil penalties in addition to its existing criminal fines.

But Collins said much more needs to be done. And, she said, "it seems to me that it's not in the interest of domestic producers to have tainted fruit come into the country."

The hearing's private sector witnesses -- representing the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Food Processors Association and United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association -- all agreed.

"We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by bringing questionable food into our country and by using it in processing food," said Dane Bernard, NFPA's vice president for food safety programs.

But NFPA, like its fellow private sector groups, questioned the need to add to FDA's existing authority. "Frankly, we maintain that the FDA already has the statutory authority to make the changes, through regulation, that the GAO [General Accounting Office] and others have suggested," he said.

What GAO has suggested is the equivalency approach, which would give the FDA more authority to require that food imports are produced under systems that meet U.S. requirements. In addition, GAO recommended that FDA target its inspections on high risk imported food products as well as exercise better control over both sampling and testing. Finally, GAO criticized the agency for allowing importers to retain control over rejected cargo.

Generally, private sector witnesses support an increase in FDA resources and inspectors as well as additional research into how to fight foodborne illnesses.

Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI, testified that in-plant inspectors from the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service could be reassigned to ports of entry for imported foods.

"FMI believes this redeployment can be easily accomplished by the development of a cross-utilization program between USDA/FSIS and FDA that would allow for the sharing of resources for the inspection of imported produce and seafood," he said.

At the same time, however, this set of witnesses also expressed reservations with the idea of giving FDA any more authority to require equivalency with U.S. standards.

For instance, Nancy Nagel, United's senior advisor for food safety, warned that requiring a country to meet U.S. standards might lock out individual foreign companies that are producing safe food. "We don't want blanket disapproval of a country when safe food can come from it," she said.

Meanwhile, the private sector also rejected the idea of a centralized food safety agency -- an idea which subcommittee member Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., supports as a way to streamline resources and avoid a user fee to pay for additional inspectors. Durbin noted that many private sector witnesses suggested linking existing resources. "When you talk about coordinating FDA and USDA, you're moving in my direction," he said.

But while changes need to made, Stacey Zawel, GMA's director of scientific and regulatory affairs said that doesn't mean "wiping out the system." Said Zawel, "We've come this way through history to meet the needs that are there."

Nagel agreed. "You wouldn't build it that way [among six different agencies]," she said. "But it works remarkably well."

Three of the four public health group witnesses who testified Friday -- the American Public Health Association, the Safe Food Coalition and Public Voice for Food & Health Policy -- supported the idea of a centralized agency. Ruth Kava, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science & Health cautioned, however, that a single agency might result in a stranglehold on food imports.

Each of the public health groups agreed, however, that more inspectors are needed at U.S. ports, especially considering that while food imports have tripled since the mid-1980s, the percentage of those actually inspected has dropped to 1.7% in 1998 from 8% in 1990.

Generally, the public health witnesses agreed that equivalency should be considered, although Kava cautioned that such an approach should be flexible enough "to allow countries to come up to speed." Meanwhile, all agreed that more education is required to warn consumers about ways to protect themselves against pathogens. "I believe that everyone should practice self-defense," said Carol Tucker Foreman, coordinator for the Safe Food Coalition.

Testifying Thursday along with representatives from U.S. Customs, the Agriculture Department and the National Academy of Sciences, FDA deputy commissioner William Schultz said that while FDA could use more manpower, the agency is also ready to develop new approaches to food safety.

"We recognize that there is tremendous room for improvement at FDA," Schultz said, adding later, "We must find a way to go to the source of contamination." In addition, he said, the FDA also needs the authority to refuse products from a country that doesn't meet U.S. standards. "We need not only a way to work with them, but to get them to listen to us."

Full equivalency with U.S. requirements might not be possible in all foreign countries, Schultz acknowledged. But, he added, "here we're talking about basic sanitation standards and we would describe them" to each country in a major education campaign.

At Customs, Commissioner Raymond Kelly said his agency has already conducted an internal review of its own food-safety policies, finding problems in cargo control, coordination between Customs agents and FDA officials and the weak nature of the government's current system of sanctions and penalties.

In response, Kelly said Customs has made recommendations, including: using discreet transponders to better monitor cargo movement, developing stronger penalties including a separate bond for repeat violators, working closer with FDA and destroying and or re-exporting any tainted food.

And Agriculture's food safety and inspection administrator Thomas Billy touted his agency's FSIS, which monitors all meat, poultry and egg product imports from 37 countries certified to be maintaining U.S. production standards.

While FSIS was offered as a possible model for the FDA to use in developing stricter controls on fruit and vegetable imports, Billy noted, however, that FSIS deals with a much smaller quantity of imports than those of produce as well as far fewer production facilities. For example, he said, FSIS typically monitors centralized slaughterhouses as opposed to small, independent farms.

FMI's Hammonds testified that a redeployment of inspectors would not pose a problem for FSIS, if it adopts a new inspection system currently under consideration by Billy, which would free up more inspectors for other programs like imported produce. The proposed inspection model (covering meat and poultry) would rely more on prevention, rather than physical inspection.

Finally, Thursday's hearing also featured testimony from four Senators considered the front-runners on the food-safety front: Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Barbara Milkulski, D-Md., Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who spoke of the need for new food-safety legislation.

Currently, they said, 12 food-safety bills are now pending in various subcommittees and a conference committee is at work considering an Agriculture Appropriations bill which includes $66 million in new spending for the President's Food Safety Initiative committee to oversee 20 food-safety program areas.

Milkulski, who with Kennedy has co-sponsored legislation to give FDA more inspection and enforcement power, argued against just adding more inspectors to U.S. ports without additional changes to the nation's food-safety net. "You can't assure our food-safety one raspberry at a time," Mikulski said. "What we need to do is not only manage the panic and the fear, but come up with sensible solutions."

And that's only more necessary now, she said, with one-third of all fresh fruits and 12% of all fresh vegetables consumed in the United States coming from foreign countries. In 1996, the U.S. imported $7.2 billions worth of fruit and vegetables alone from 90 different countries.