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Increasing Federal Attention to Food Safety in the Offing

Increasing Federal Attention to Food Safety in the Offing

For too long, increasingly lax food-safety regulations and enforcement efforts have contributed in some measure to incidents that have undermined consumers' confidence in the safety of food products. There are now indications that this may be changing.

One such indication occurred in recent days when President Bush appointed a Cabinet-level panel to take a look at the safety of imported food. In acknowledgement of the public's growing unease about food safety, particularly the safety of imported products, Bush invited members of the panel to the White House for a photo session. He allowed that “food safety and consumer safety is a serious issue.”

Mike Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, was appointed to head the panel. Other members are the secretaries of State, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security; the attorney general; the director of the Office of Management and Budget; the U.S. Trade Representative; the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

No doubt this group was appointed in response to the problems associated with food and food ingredient imports from China. As was widely reported several weeks ago, inspections of imported finished products and ingredients is not a top priority, owing to a lack of funding to accomplish detailed inspections. Panel members were given 60 days to examine current federal regulations and inspection procedures, as well as the regulations and procedures of other countries, and make recommendations as to what should be done.

The seating of this panel is a good move, but let's hope that it, or a successor panel, will go beyond examining regulations governing imports, since problems with food safety go beyond imports. On top of that, it wouldn't hurt to have industry experts involved in efforts such as this.

The real question, though, goes to how to execute inspections. As has been pointed out in recent news articles, the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for the safety of all food imports except for meat and poultry, has 625 inspectors. Those inspectors are also responsible for the safety of domestically produced product. It's difficult to imagine how such a scant force could do much toward eliminating food hazards.

There seems to be some awareness of the funding issue. In a move that won support from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a proposal has been made by the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee to increase funding for the FDA. The subcommittee proposed increasing the FDA's budget by $186 million, including $48.4 million in new funding for the food programs and $33.2 million for the Critical Path Initiative and drug safety measures. The increase is $122 million above the president's budget proposal and more than $70 million above the House subcommittee's proposal.

This represents a sizable and much-needed funding increase.

“For far too long the FDA has been woefully underfunded by Congress,” said Cal Dooley, GMA president and chief executive officer. “The growing diversification of the world's food supply and today's complex global marketplace demand that Congress appropriate the necessary funds to ensure our nation's food safety system is second to none.”