Administration Officials Acknowledge More Resources Needed To Improve Food Safety

Tuesday, December 4th 2007, 3:49 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) President Bush's 2008 budget will include additional money to help safeguard the nation's food supply, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday.

Leavitt, however, did not say how much more money the Food and Drug Administration would get for its food safety efforts. The agency currently has a budget of about $2 billion.

In the past 18 months, there have been a series of food-borne illnesses that have led to questions about the safety of the nation's food supply. For example, spinach was contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli, peanut butter was found to contain salmonella and canned chili contained the bacteria that causes botulism.

President Bush appointed representatives of a dozen federal agencies to develop a comprehensive plan to improve food safety, but in his executive order, he said the improvements would have to be made with existing resources. When the plan was issued last month, it stated that resources would be directed to the areas of greatest risk.

But, last week, scientific experts inside and outside the FDA concluded the agency can no longer fulfill its mission without a substantial increase in its budget. In light of the report, members of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wanted to know how the administration would be able to improve food safety.

``We want to know what you're going to do about their conclusions that the agency is in trouble and needs help,'' said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts.

Leavitt responded that the group studying food safety told the president that it would not be possible to make the improvements needed with existing funding.

``I believe you will see additional resources in the president's budget and in future presidents' budgets to implement this very comprehensive plan,'' said Leavitt.

Last week, scientific experts advising FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, said the nation's food supply was at risk, in part, because it relied on old technology.

``Many of the FDA systems reside on technology that has been in service beyond the usual life cycle. Systems fail frequently, and even e-mail systems are unstable most recently during an E. coli food contamination investigation,'' the report said.

``More importantly, reports of product dangers are not rapidly compared and analyzed, inspectors reports are still hand written and slow to work their way through the compliance system, and the system for managing imported products cannot communicate with Customs and other government systems.''

Leavitt told the committee that the nation's food supply was one of the safest in the world. He said improving the safety of imports and food would require the government to focus on products as they are being manufactured or grown, rather than trying to intercept unsafe products at the border.

Democratic lawmakers on the committee were more critical than Republicans when assessing the administration's plans to improve food safety.

Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, called on lawmakers to give the administration a chance to enact its plan before condemning it.

``Let me just implore my colleagues,'' said Burr, ``let's give them a chance.''