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Progress slow in protecting U.S. food imports

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WASHINGTON Seven years after the Food and Drug Administration proposed marking food shipments rejected at U.S. ports for safety reasons as “United Stated Refused Entry,” to discourage importers from trying to sneak them in through another U.S. port, remains to be implemented. That, and many other proposed solutions to long-standing problems with food imports have yet to be carried out, having been delayed, derailed or ignored by the FDA, Congress and the food industry.

Former FDA officials and current lawmakers said the measures withered from lack of funding, political will, competing priorities and industry opposition. Although recent tainted imports from China have sparked a number of import safety bills in Congress, “by the time Congress gets around to appropriating money, concern [will have] ebbed,” said Tommy Thompson, who resigned in 2005 as secretary of Health and Human Services, which overseas the FDA.

Among import-safety proposals that have resurfaced are:

  • Stronger standards in other countries. Ten years ago, the FDA supported legislation, which died in Congress, that gave it more power to deny foods from countries lacking good safety systems. Today, lawmakers have introduced bills that require or suggest countries or companies have food safety standards equivalent to the United States’ before exporting to the United States.
  • Port restrictions. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., in 1993 wrote a memo to his colleagues describing how importers could bring goods into the United States through ports where FDA inspection resources were weak. In September, Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, introduced a bill proposing to restrict food imports to a dozen ports unless the FDA deems the import of little risk. Already, the food industry had lined up against the bill, claiming it will cripple the flow of imports.

With the focus on food imports reignited by tainted imports from China, Dingell believes changes to food safety are likely to see a turnaround this time. Others on Capital Hill are hopeful, as well.

“There’s a greater sense of urgency,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

“It used to be that when I talked about food safety, a lot of reporters’ eyes would glaze over,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “Now when I talk about fixing America’s broken food safety system … people listen.”

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