U.S.: FDA Reviews Food Safety to Protect from Terrorism

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Headline: FDA asks food industry to review safety measures for imports, labor -- Seeks to ensure food supply is protected from terrorist attack

Source: The Wall Street Journal, 3 October 2001

URL: http://www.msnbc.com/news/637316.asp

The Food and Drug Administration has been quietly meeting with the food industry in an effort to ensure that the nation’s food supply is protected from bioterrorist attacks.

Since Sept. 11, the FDA has met with three of the industry’s biggest trade groups — the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the National Food Processors Association and the International Dairy Foods Association — according to people with knowledge of the situation. The agency asked the industry officials to review security plans in light of the terrorist attacks and to plug any weaknesses.

Among the areas discussed were the screening of employees and protecting supply and distribution chains. In addition, the agency asked the industry what the government should do to increase the security of the food supply.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has discussed the issue of food safety and bioterrorism with several lawmakers, according to congressional staffers. The secretary, staffers say, wants to bolster the FDA’s chronically understaffed food-inspection staff. They also said that both Secretary Thompson and several lawmakers are interested in enhancing the safety of imported foods, especially produce.

Indeed, Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.) and other members of the Energy and Commerce Committee are expected to introduce legislation to improve imported-food safety.

The FDA’s efforts reflect the stepped-up vigilance seen throughout government agencies after the recent terrorist attacks, rather than any specific threats involving the food supply. The action by the FDA, which is part of HHS, is consistent with overall activity by the department.

In an interview last week, Secretary Thompson said that he and other top officials have been meeting with all industries regulated by HHS — including the pharmaceutical industry — in an effort to ensure that the companies’ security plans are adequate to safeguard against terrorist acts.

For years, both food-safety advocates and industry representatives have complained that the FDA’s food-safety programs are underfunded. For example, only a tiny fraction of imported food is inspected when it enters the country.

Burt Flickinger, managing director of Reach Marketing, a food-industry consulting firm, said the FDA’s scrutiny is warranted, “especially with all the Third World sourcing of commodity products like rice and sugar and wheat.” Raw materials, he said, sometimes come from ports of origin where safety and security issues loom.

A more fundamental problem is simply tracking the true supply chain of imported goods. “We may think we’re importing foods from one country, but in fact it might be an import from a different country,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even food additives, she said, sometimes are shipped to the U.S. through Canada, “and that isn’t always tracked very effectively.”

Still, food-industry officials said domestic producers have excellent protections already in place, largely as a result of the product-tampering episodes of the 1980s and 1990s. “Food safety is already such a huge issue in this country that a lot of precautionary steps have already been taken, like security in the plants and action plans if there is any kind of suspected tampering,” said Susan Ruland a spokeswoman for the dairy-foods group.

“We’re all going over our checklists,” said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. “We have had programs in place for years.”

Many meetings are being conducted by Janice Oliver, deputy director for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. She is a well-respected career employee with an enforcement background.

The FDA declined comment, referring all calls to HHS. HHS officials also declined to comment.

Some members of Congress may try to use the food-safety issue to pursue the creation of a single agency responsible for food safety. Currently, the FDA, the Agriculture Department and, to a much lesser extent, other agencies all have food-safety responsibilities.

-- Andre Weltman (aweltman@state.pa.us), October 03, 2001

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