Food Firms Want FDA To Oversee Imports

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The country's largest food suppliers, including Kraft Foods, H.J. Heinz and Dole Food, facing congressional food-safety proposals that could cost them millions of dollars a year, proposed yesterday to grant the government more oversight of the industry.

The plan, offered by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, covers imported food, the subject of increasing attention from Congress. It would require all importers to develop a plan for assuring the quality of imported foods and give the Food and Drug Administration the power to enforce it. Most companies already have such plans, but the FDA does not have authority over them, according to the group.

The association's proposal would also create a voluntary program that would allow importers to submit testing records, information about their supply chain and other data to the FDA in return for expedited processing at the borders. That would allow the FDA to focus on the riskiest importers, the group said.

The proposal focuses on the increasing amount of food being imported into the United States rather than on domestic supplies. The food producers are following toy manufacturers and others who have proposed stronger self-regulation in the face of criticism from Congress after reports of unsafe goods coming into the country from China, including toys with lead-based paint and tainted pet-food ingredients.

It is reminiscent of voluntary programs advocated by food producers last year after three people died and hundreds were sickened following an outbreak of E. coli from tainted spinach traced to California, said California state Sen. Dean Florez (D).

Like the previous industry efforts, Florez said, the Grocery Manufacturers Association's is "trying to get ahead of the regulation curve," while consumers need more government intervention and inspections. "Once somebody is sick, we think that is much too late," he said.

After the E. coli outbreak, large food distributors preferred self-regulation because more government oversight could take years to put in place, they said.

On Monday, Dole Food of California recalled 4,530 bags of salad in the United States and 528 bags in Canada after E. coli was found in a sample taken by a Canadian grocery store. No illnesses were reported related to the product, which was distributed in several states, including Illinois, Indiana, Maine and New York. Last month, Metz Fresh of California recalled 68,000 pounds of bagged spinach after a positive test for salmonella.

Concerns over imports have risen since the FDA restricted the import of five types of seafood from China and recalled pet food containing ingredients from China tainted with melamine, an industrial toxin, this year.

"Recent events have exposed some weaknesses in the nation's food-safety net," said Sean McBride, the Grocery Manufacturers Association's vice president for communications. "We're not sitting back and waiting for the government to inspect us to a safe food supply."

The proposal also calls for more resources for the FDA, a common theme among industry and consumer groups. Importers that do not have food-safety plans would risk having their shipments detained by the FDA, association officials said.

The association's proposals fall short of many of the legislative initiatives under consideration in Congress, including a fee proposed by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) that could average up to $20 per shipment to bring in the seafood, fruits and vegetables regulated by the FDA. Durbin has said the legislation could raise $200 million a year for the FDA to expand its oversight efforts. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has proposed a similar fee.

While praising the industry for acknowledging problems with the system, Durbin remains in favor of the fee, which the industry opposes.

And Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute at Consumers Union, said many consumer groups want the FDA to have the authority to mandate recalls. "It is missing things we think are critical," she said.

Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said yesterday that she would continue to push for a single food agency and for giving the government the right to mandate recalls. "My proposal giving the federal government mandatory recall authority will also encourage industry to establish more-rigorous oversight of their processing and packaging operations," she said.

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