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Food industry worries that new bioterror rules could disrupt imports

WASHINGTON (AP) _ New rules designed to thwart bioterrorists could disrupt U.S. food imports, industry representatives told a congressional panel Friday.

Federal authorities will begin full enforcement in mid-August of a requirement that those exporting food to the United States give American inspectors advance notice before shipments arrive. Products shipped without prior notice will be refused entry.

Widespread confusion about the new rules creates the potential that legitimate food imports could be delayed or denied entry into the United States, importers, distributors and other food industry executives said at a House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee hearing.

``We can't have all of the trucks of the world stopped on the border,'' said John Cady, president and CEO of the National Food Processors Association.

Although there has not been a terrorist attack on the U.S. food supply, Americans have been hit by an anthrax scare, and FDA officials believe green onions that originated in Mexico infected hundreds of U.S. residents with hepatitis.

Congress passed the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 to enhance food security, including requiring domestic and foreign companies that make or handle food destined for U.S. consumption to register with the federal government.

As of Thursday, just over half the estimated 400,000 companies have registered, said Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Asked why so many facilities have yet to register, Crawford said, ``It could be we overestimated the number of faciltiies.''

He said FDA would continue reaching out to companies to bring them into compliance.

FDA shares responsibility for food security with U.S. Customs, part of the Homeland Security Department.

Federal authorities inspect only about 2 percent of food imports, based on assessment of their risk, officials said.

The new rules are intended to speed most products across the border, although some foreign exporters have said they would be driven out of the U.S. market.
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