FDA advises food industry to check food workers' background, watch the salad bar

Wednesday, January 9th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Criminal background checks on workers hired by farms and food companies are among recommendations the government is making to protect the nation's food supply from terrorists.

In a series of voluntary guidelines, the Food and Drug Administration said the industry should take care to safeguard water supplies and urged restaurants to monitor salad bars. Companies also should watch for employees who stay at work after their shifts end and should restrict access to computer control systems, laboratories and sensitive areas of processing plants, the FDA says.

``What's most important is that companies look at their whole operations from the point of view of could there be an intrusion in there and what do we have to do to lower the likelihood,'' said Joseph Levitt, FDA's food safety chief.

The agency wrote the guidelines in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with advice from the food industry. Companies are not required to follow them.

FDA has similar recommendations for importers that include detailed suggestions for transporting and storing food. Companies are advised to use locked and sealed containers for transporting food.

Both versions of the guidelines were being published Wednesday in the Federal Register.

The agency's advice ``is both comprehensive and flexible, allowing companies within our very complex and diverse food supply to determine how best to apply it to their own operations,'' said Rhona Applebaum, an executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association.

The only known terror attack on U.S. food occurred in the 1980s, when a cult in Oregon contaminated salad bars with salmonella bacteria. Experts say fresh produce may be the food most vulnerable to tampering because it is often eaten raw and is subject to little government inspection.

Consumer advocates say voluntary measures aren't enough to protect the food supply, and there's a renewed push in Congress to consolidate the government's inspection services to give the FDA and Agriculture Department more legal authority. Now, neither agency can force companies to recall tainted products.

Congress recently approved the hiring of 600 additional food inspectors at FDA, which would allow the agency to double the number of people it has checking imported products. The agency currently inspects about 1 percent of imported food.

``Voluntary guidelines are not enough,'' said Jennifer Brower, a policy analyst with the RAND Corp. think tank. ``The FDA doesn't have the power, ... and they don't have the resources and inspectors, to do what they need to do.''

Companies that import fruits and vegetables from Mexico, a major source of produce in U.S. stores, say they're already following security measures that the Customs Service recommends to deter food shipments from being used to smuggle narcotics.

Background checks make sense for truck drivers, who have control of food during shipment, but not for farm workers, said Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, an importers group.

McDonald's Corp. officials won't discuss the restaurant chain's security.

``We take it very seriously,'' said spokesman Walt Riker. ``We're going to continue to be vigilant, and everyone else should as well.''