Technology Seen as Key To Upgrading Food Safety

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, center, last year met with the FDA's Andrew von Eschenbach, left, and Del Monte's Carlos Marinkovic. Leavitt said yesterday:
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, center, last year met with the FDA's Andrew von Eschenbach, left, and Del Monte's Carlos Marinkovic. Leavitt said yesterday: "We simply cannot inspect our way to safety." (By Mike Mergen -- Bloomberg News)
By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A consensus is building among government and food industry officials that the fix for the country's import safety system is likely to require better-targeted inspections, though not necessarily more of them.

Yesterday, Mike Leavitt, secretary of health and human services and chairman of a panel established by President Bush to study the safety of imported food, reflected that point of view when he said: "We simply cannot inspect our way to safety."

Leavitt was speaking in a packed auditorium at the Department of Agriculture, where the Interagency Working Group on Import Safety heard from more than 40 speakers. The panel is compiling a list of recommendations that is expected to be issued by next month and is likely to include an emphasis on using technology to target risky importers and coordinating oversight among agencies.

The idea that inspections need not be increased has been challenged by consumer advocates and those in Congress who have proposed a series of reforms to the food safety system, including importer fees and consolidated oversight under a single agency. They consider increased inspection necessary but acknowledge that the Food and Drug Administration's budget makes that difficult under current circumstances.

The question of how to keep the nation's imported food supply safe emerged early in the summer after a series of recalls and warnings, mostly about Chinese products. The problems included an unknown number of pets that died from pet food tainted with a toxic chemical, followed by contaminated toothpaste, toys with excessive lead and seafood with banned antibiotics.

The spurt of news came as U.S. consumers remain concerned about an E. coli outbreak last year that cleared shelves of spinach and led to at least three deaths. Only 66 percent of shoppers are confident that the food they buy at the grocery store is safe, down from 82 percent last year, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

At first, attention turned to the government's reliance on random inspections to catch problems, and demands that those inspections be increased. The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of the food under its oversight, including seafood and produce. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has fewer than 100 investigators for the 15,000 types of consumer items, from toys to electrical outlets, that come into the country every year.

In the weeks since then, however, as President Bush's panel set to work, at least a half-dozen pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress and a series of hearings on the proposed laws were held, the prevailing sentiment has come down to this: The U.S. import safety system is indeed broken, but the short-term fix probably lies in requiring manufacturers to ensure the safety of their suppliers and giving U.S. regulators more power to oversee the safety system they put in place. Importers could be expected, for example, to certify that their suppliers are meeting tough safety standards.

Government and industry officials note that the sheer volume of imports -- $2.2 trillion this year, twice the level in 2000 -- makes increasing inspections impractical. It would require hundreds, if not thousands, of new inspectors, and would slow business at the borders, they say.

"People can say, 'let's increase inspections' and that is all well and good, but you are looking for a needle in the haystack," said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Instead, the import safety panel is expected to push for expanded use of technology to more quickly identify risky imports. Leavitt has supported the use of technology at the border that could read the contents of a sports drink bottle, for example, looking for potentially toxic chemicals without opening it. The FDA is developing a food-safety strategy to be unveiled this fall that would rely on risk-based inspection but has not asked for more resources to pay for more inspections.

"There is an emerging consensus that we should continue to improve our ability to detect threats but not rely on detection as the front line," said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "Our inspectors should be the remedy of last resort."

But increasing inspections remains the cornerstone of many of the congressional proposals under consideration, along with empowering the FDA to mandate recalls. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, have both proposed charging importers a fee that would raise hundreds of millions of dollars and help fund more inspections. Supporters of the legislation say that although increasing inspections may not be enough to tackle the entire food safety problem, it is critical to the process.

"We need more inspections at foreign factories or processing plants as well as inspections at our ports of entry," Donald L. Mays, senior director of product safety at Consumers Union, told the panel yesterday.

Which viewpoints prevail may depend on how much lawmakers are able to accomplish before the end of the year. In the short term, consumers may see more resources for the FDA and other regulatory agencies, said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. More systematic restructuring of the food safety system, including consolidating oversight under a single agency, will take time, she said. "We need to beef up every area of food safety," she said.

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