TUESDAY, July 17, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Responding to growing concerns about the safety of the U.S. food supply and unregulated imports, President Bush on Wednesday created a high-level panel to suggest steps to safeguard food and other products shipped into the country.
The panel, the Import Safety Working Group, will be chaired by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, the Associated Press reported.
"The administration is concerned about the safety of imported products that Americans eat and use, and we'll start working on concrete steps to address whatever problems they may uncover," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
Bush created the new panel with an executive order, the AP said.
Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, called the formation of the panel "a wonderful step. The administration is moving aggressively to address the issue." She had previously told a Senate hearing that the rapid rise of imports was putting a strain on her agency.
Bush's creation of the panel followed sharp criticism Tuesday of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ability to ensure the safety of food in America, with investigators telling a Congressional committee the agency's efforts to safeguard the food supply -- particularly imported foods --- were "minimal."
Food importers have found ways to avoid federal oversight of the products they ship into the United States, putting consumers at risk, the investigators told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on the FDA and food safety.
For example, when it comes to fish, importers sometimes route product through an inland point of entry, such as Las Vegas, instead of a big Pacific port city, the AP reported. Importers can also get around FDA mercury inspections by offering younger, smaller fish to inspectors, then use the resulting agency approval to import larger fish with higher levels of the toxin, the investigators said.
A committee investigation also found that the FDA has little ability to police food imports. In San Francisco, for example, the agency's staff can manage only a cursory review of imports, generally dedicating just 30 seconds to each shipment as it flashes by on a computer screen, according to the investigators, the AP reported.
"We know that we are vulnerable to harm from abroad, where rules and regulations governing food production often are more lax than they are at home," said committee member Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., raising the prospect of terrorists tampering with imports entering the U.S. food supply, the news service reported.
The FDA's ability to guarantee the nation's food supply has been criticized by Congress and others following months of headline-grabbing food-borne illnesses, including E. coli contamination in spinach, salmonella-tainted peanut butter and snack foods, and contaminated pet foods, toothpaste and other foods imported from China.
As Bush created the Import Safety Working Group on Wednesday, China said teams of food safety officials from the United States and China would meet in Beijing at the end of this month to discuss the safety of China's seafood exports. The FDA announced last month that it would detain Chinese catfish and several other categories of fish as well as shrimp and eel after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs that have not been approved in the United States for use in farmed seafood, the AP reported.
During Tuesday's Congressional testimony, committee members were also critical of the FDA proposal to close more than half of its laboratories.
"FDA's ill-conceived decision to close seven of its 13 laboratories likely would expose American consumers to even more danger from unsafe foods, particularly imports," committee member Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said Tuesday.
Committee investigators also questioned the FDA's mostly voluntary approach to domestic and imported food safety. Lack of authority has left FDA inspectors unable to access records and test results by some companies, the AP said.
Except for certain food categories, the FDA has no authority to mandate inspections. "FDA has no rules governing testing protocols, record retention... manufacturing, quality assurance and control, or the right to examine any records that a food-processing firm chooses to keep voluntarily," the congressional report said.
However, one food-safety expert believes the FDA may be just a convenient scapegoat for a broken federal food-safety system.
"The food-safety system is based on a paradigm that is outdated," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and community health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center.
The current system is based on a model when foods were much less complex, said Imperato, a former New York City health commissioner. "When one looks back at when most of the FDA regulations were encoded, we go back to a time when foods were very simple with very few ingredients, and now there are multiple ingredients for multiple sources," he said. "FDA regulations are not structured to deal with a world of complex food production and the mixing of multiple ingredients."
"What is new is the importation of larger and larger volumes of food," he added. "But not just foods, but rather ingredients incorporated in foods. There, it becomes more difficult to put those under close surveillance, because they work their way into the food chain at various points in the system. And that requires significant resources to monitor."
Another big problem, Imperato said, is that there's no central agency responsible for coordination of food safety.
"The other problem is that the existing regulations are frequently quite weak. Food processors, distributors and growers adhere to industry standards to which compliance is voluntary and the FDA does not have enforcement authority," Imperato said. "In addition, the FDA's enforcement staff has been greatly reduced in recent years."
Imperato contends that new regulations are needed to standardize food safety. "In addition, the FDA needs to be given the authority to enforce the regulations," he said. "This is going to be a perpetual problem, and eventually the federal government must address it. But I'm not optimistic that is going to happen in the short term."
For more on food safety, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.