Food Import Safety Proposal Would Limit Flow Of Goods To Few Ports

Wednesday, September 26th 2007, 3:42 pm

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Shipments of foreign food would be funneled through 13 ports of entry, cutting out Chicago, Houston, Miami and several hundred other cities, under legislation to tighten U.S. oversight of imports.

The restrictions would fix an import safety network now ``equivalent in holes to a block of Swiss cheese,'' Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Wednesday during the first legislative hearing on his bill. Dingell also proposes assessing $500 million in fees on shipments of food and drugs to step up Food and Drug Administration inspections of both.

The grocery industry, importers and exporters warned the proposal would disrupt trade and send consumer prices soaring. One lawmaker said the proposal would have to strike a balance between the demands of security and commerce to work.

``I hope we can do it in a way that doesn't bring commercial activity in our country to a grinding halt,'' said Rep. Gene Green, a Texas Democrat who warned the bill would shut out Houston from receiving coffee and other food imports.

As for the FDA, it has yet to take a position on the bill, the latest in a slew of proposals on how to best overhaul the agency's ability to safeguard the imports it regulates _ a volume that doubled in the last five years alone.

The issue has been of widespread concern amid a string of high-profile recalls and warnings about imports of drug-laced fish, chemically spiked pet food ingredients and other products. A cabinet-level import safety group set up by President Bush is to present its action plan in November.

Meanwhile, the FDA is discussing with the Department of Health and Human Services what additional authorities it needs to oversee import safety, said David Acheson, who oversees food safety for the agency, part of HHS. Previously, FDA officials have denied needing more power.

Acheson also acknowledged an obvious need for more resources _ he told lawmakers that FDA spending on food safety has only kept pace with inflation in recent years. And FDA deputy commissioner for policy Randall Lutter said the one percent of imported food physically inspected by the FDA is insufficient.

The Dingell bill also would:

_require food, drugs and medical devices be labeled by country of origin;

_allow certified food importers to have their goods cleared faster through ports;

_give the FDA the power to mandate food recalls;

_require all food imports to come from either countries or individual facilities that meet U.S. safety standards.

Dingell told FDA officials he intended _ ``like it or not'' _ to give their agency the power and money needed to protect the public.

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