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US prepares food import safety action plan

By Lorraine Heller , 04-Oct-2007

Federal agencies and trade bodies met this week in Washington to develop an action plan designed to address the safety of imported goods into the United States.

The import safety working group public meeting, held on Monday, marked the next step in recent actions to address the issue, which included a report presented to the president last month, as well as a proposed bill to implement stricter import regulations.



Next on the agenda is the presentation of an action plan to the president, expected in mid-November. This will lay out a road map with short and long-term recommendations for improving import safety, many of which will "depend heavily" on the points brought up during this week's meeting, said Mike Leavitt, health and human services secretary.



According to Leavitt, "we will continue to improve the inspection process for all products coming from across our borders, but we simply cannot inspect our way to safety".



"The federal government cannot and it should not attempt to physically inspect every product that enters the United States. Doing so would bring the international trade of this country to a standstill, and it would distract resources, limited resources from those imported goods that pose the greatest threats."



Instead, he said, authorities need to create a better system that builds quality into the product from the very start.



The value of goods imported by the US has doubled since 2000, to reach an estimated $2.2tn this year. The value of goods from China, which is the second-largest exporter to the US after Canada, is expected to reach $341bn this year, up almost 25 percent from last year. Products currently come from 25,000 importers through 300 ports of entry.



The US food industry also backs the need for more stringent food import strategies. At the public meeting this week, trade group Grocery Manufacturer's Association (GMA) presented a proposal to improve import safety based on a four-pillar approach, each of which will each play an important role in supporting the US food chain in a global market.



The first 'pillar' will require every importer to adopt a foreign supplier quality assurance program to make sure every single product or ingredient complies with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards, Dooley said.



Another important issue to develop is to make sure that foreign governments who wish to trade with the US have food safety standards similar or the same to those of the US, he added.



The other two 'pillars' detailed in a report involve government freeing up more money and resources for the FDA, while, reciprocally, the FDA must pledge to use the extra resources and "adequately fulfil its food safety mission."



Last week, a bill proposing stricter import regulations was presented to Congress. Under the Food and Drug Import Safety Act of 2007 the number of ports where food imports arrive would be limited to 13, so that tainted or damaged products are easier to spot.



What's more, these 'ports of entry' must have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratory in the vicinity to carry out any necessary testing.



Earlier last month, a government panel of experts presented a report calling for improved preventative checking measures for imports, without which the US will fail to deal with food safety in an increasingly global market.



According to the report, the current system of random border checks was failing to stem the tide of faulty imports, especially in the face of a rising number of goods manufactured or processed in Asia.



Instead of randomly testing products as they enter the US, the government should "shrink the size of the borders", said Leavitt, group chairman, and focus on targeting imports that inspectors suspect would fail safety checks.



These measures need to be put in place soon, the report said, as imported goods are increasing by massive numbers each year.



Diseases caused by food-borne pathogens are still common-place in the US, the newspaper added, and this week California's Dole Food had to recall over 5,000 bags of salad after a random test revealed the presence of E. coli on the product.



According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses occur in the US each year, causing about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.



The CDC identified 17,252 laboratory-confirmed cases of food poisoning in 2006, including 6,655 cases of salmonella and 590 cases of E-coli O157. In 2005, 16,614 cases were identified, rising from 15,806 in 2004.


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