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China, U.S. Near Deal on Safe Food

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007

Food and Drug Administration officials held high-level meetings with their counterparts in China this week and said yesterday that they expect an agreement by December on improving the safety of food exports.

FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, in a conference call from Shanghai, offered few details about the agreement the two countries have been negotiating since July.

"They are as concerned about confidence in the quality and safety of food and drugs, as we are in the United States," von Eschenbach said. "They are anxious to collaborate with us."

Negotiations will continue when Chinese officials come to the United States this month.

"I hope this announcement results in a legally binding agreement that implements effective practices that would establish equivalency standards for food safety between the U.S. and China," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a frequent critic of FDA's oversight of food safety, said in a written statement.

She said she hopes the agreement will allow FDA inspectors to enter the country without delays like those encountered this year after pet food in the United States was found to contain tainted ingredients from China.

FDA officials have acknowledged that the current safety system has not kept up with the increasing volume of imports. The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported seafood, fruits and vegetables.

Officials have said that rather than increase inspections, the agency is likely to propose the greater use of technology to track and identify risky imports, or to test food at ports of entry rather than sending it to labs.

During a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, lawmakers said their investigators had found that China does not meet international safety standards and lacks sufficient internal regulations. Lawmakers also criticized the FDA for not aggressively pursuing ways to reform the current system, especially compared with countries like Japan, which inspects more of its imports than the United States and limits the number of Chinese companies allowed to export to the country.

"I think this is an emergency response to an emergency situation," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has been pushing for food safety reform. Before consumer confidence can be restored, the "Chinese have to prove they're going to change their system," he said.

China has said it has cracked down on problematic exporters and was increasing inspections of its exports.

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