Lawmakers seek tougher food-safety rules as food imports increase, FDA inspections decrease

October 12, 2007

By Missy Ryan/Reuters/October 11, 2007

House lawmakers hurled tough questions at U.S. regulators on Thursday as they pressed the Bush administration, after a year marred by public health scares, to come up with more aggressive defenses against dangerous food.

Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee, and other lawmakers were visibly exasperated as they questioned the Bush administration’s food czar and others in a hearing targeted at U.S. screening of domestic and imported food.

“At a time when food imports are sharply increasing, FDA inspections have decreased by 90 percent … This is simply unacceptable,” Stupak said as the hearing began.

David Acheson, who oversees food protection at the Food and Drug Administration, defended the agency’s record, pointing out legal and budgetary constraints that have posed a challenge for the agency in an increasingly globalized economy.

“The key to success is to build in preventive strategies … right up front,” he said.

A new blueprint for the agency, Acheson said, would help halt problems early in the production chain, target the most risky imports, and act quickly when problems do occur.

Yet the faces on the dais were stony. Lawmakers asked why U.S. agencies had not requested authority to recall hazardous food, and why U.S. rules did not require verification of other countries’ safety measures before they can ship food here.

It would “frankly be crippling,” Acheson said, to verify all trade partners’ practices were on par with U.S. standards.

“We certainly recognize that we’ve got challenges,” he told Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon, who simply sighed.

Lawmakers also said regulators were slow to respond to pet food tainted by melamine and eels containing malachite green, used to control parasites, imported from China, and contaminated frozen beef patties manufactured domestically.

With this year’s tally of dangerous products growing, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have floated a raft of plans for overhauling the current system.

A bill sponsored by Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat who chairs the full committee, and others would give the FDA recall power and fund wider inspections with a new import fee.

About 15 percent of the overall U.S. food supply is imported — but that share is larger when it comes to fresh fruit and seafood.

Currently, the FDA is responsible for more than three-quarters of the U.S. food supply, except for meat, poultry and eggs, which fall to the Agriculture Department.

Lawmakers homed in on differences in the two agencies’ approaches to food oversight. The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of total food imports it oversees. USDA inspectors, meanwhile, inspect every lot under their jurisdiction.

Lawmakers appeared dismayed by reports from a congressional fact-finding mission that found the reality of China’s safeguards often falls short of procedures on the books.

David Nelson, one of the investigators, described “hundreds of millions of farmers” producing food on tiny plots, some no bigger than a basketball court. “There’s simply no way the Chinese government can have control,” he said.

With reports swirling about unsafe Chinese goods, Texas Republican Michael Burgess quizzed Nelson, seated next to fellow investigators, about what they ate during their trip.

“We ate what was served to us,” Nelson responded.

“Were you OK?” Burgess pressed. “I was. That’s not true of everyone at this table,” Nelson replied.

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