INDUSTRY WARY OF CLINTON FOOD-SAFETY FUNDING

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- President Clinton is expected to ask Congress for an additional $71 million in funding for food-safety programs and the food industry is concerned about how the money will be spent.Clinton's proposed boost to the government's food-safety funding will be contained in his fiscal 1999 budget, scheduled for release Feb. 2. The spending request isn't unexpected. Last summer, in announcing

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- President Clinton is expected to ask Congress for an additional $71 million in funding for food-safety programs and the food industry is concerned about how the money will be spent.

Clinton's proposed boost to the government's food-safety funding will be contained in his fiscal 1999 budget, scheduled for release Feb. 2. The spending request isn't unexpected. Last summer, in announcing a broad interagency food-safety initiative, the president called for beefing up various programs, like inspecting foreign farms producing crops for export to the United States.

Nevertheless, industry officials are skeptical about the use of additional funding, particularly since the budget for food inspection and research has already been increased by 60% since 1993.

Timothy M. Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute here, last week questioned why Clinton is pressing ahead with food-safety programs with very little input from industries where regulators are seeking change. Without consulting those whose livelihood is growing, processing and selling food, the administration won't effectively address the food-safety issue, he said.

"They are following the old model that government is imposing food safety on the industry," Hammonds said. "Clearly, just throwing money at food safety is not the answer."

Hammonds last week asked U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to include food-industry officials on the National Food Safety Initiative's interagency food-safety committee formed last fall. The committee's job is to pinpoint potential safety risks in the nation's food system.

"It's time for government to develop a true food-safety partnership with the food industry," Hammonds wrote the secretaries in a Dec. 30 letter.

Debate over regulatory control between the government and the food industry is a constant. When the administration four years ago began revamping the meat-inspection system to follow a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system, the meat and poultry industry complained the USDA wasn't being responsive to its ideas. Over time, the two sides forged more of a partnership in developing the HACCP system, which goes into effect at the end of the month.

Tom Wenning, general counsel at the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., told SN congressional scrutiny of Clinton's increased food-safety funding request will likely be rigorous. "Congress will ask: 'Will this extra money targeting food safety actually make the already safe food system safer?' "

Wenning said lawmakers posed similar questions when investigating last year's Hudson Food case, in which several lots of hamburger patties were found to carry the harmful bacteria E. coli. He said lawmakers are taking a very practical approach about allocating money to food-safety programs.

"They want to know: 'Is this program something that is going to reach a food product early enough in the production and food-distribution system and attack a food-safety problem?' " Wenning said.

About $41 million of the additional $71 million sought by Clinton for food safety is expected to go to the USDA. It's unclear where in the USDA the extra money will be channeled, but sources say there is discussion that some of the money may be targeted at produce-safety research, including produce grown in foreign countries for export to the United States. The balance will go to research for testing meat and poultry for pathogens.

The occurrence of fruits and vegetables being contaminated by bacteria in soil or in handling has become more frequent and there has been growing attention about the conditions under which Third World produce is grown. And since the meat and poultry HACCP program is already under way, produce is viewed as the next major focus of food safety by the administration.

In October, Clinton directed the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA to draft voluntary safety standards for growing, processing, shipping and selling fruits and vegetables. That proposal is expected as early as this month.

About $25 million of Clinton's increased food-safety budget is also proposed for stepped-up inspections of produce imports. (The balance of Clinton's request, or $5 million, would go toward research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.)

John Aguirre, vice president of government affairs at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., said produce officials want to guard against the administration overzealously blocking imports in the name of food safety.

"How is the FDA going to embark on a process to discriminate against unsafe foods from another country?" asked Aguirre. "We would refuse to allow food-safety concerns to deny U.S. consumers imported foods. We're a global marketplace and imports are essential to providing year-round availability of product."

C. Manly Molpus, president of the Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the administration's food-safety efforts should be focused on more consumer education, not on inspection of foreign fields.

"It is important to remember that a great majority of food-safety problems arise after food leaves the manufacturing plant or after it has been purchased by the consumer," Molpus said. "Continued education in the proper handling of foods is even more important to continued food safety."

Sara Lilygren, senior vice president for legislative and public affairs at the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va., also sees a need for teaching consumers more about proper food handling and preparation. "We would like to see more dollars spent on consumer education," she said.

On another budget matter, the GMA, National Food Processors Association, American Frozen Food Institute, National Broiler Council and four other food associations have asked the president to prevent FDA approval of new food products from being tied to user fees. These pay-for-approval fees are now allowed for drugs. The pharmaceuticals industry wanted these user fees so the FDA would speed approval of new drugs. The food-industry associations say user fees for food aren't the same as for drugs.

"The same argument cannot be made with regard to fees for FDA's regulatory responsibilities to ensure a safe, plentiful and wholesome food supply," the associations wrote Clinton.