Congress Debates Moves on Food Safety

Democrats Attack Bush Plan as Too Little, Too Slow

By Todd Zwillich
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 4, 2007 -- Experts and several Senate Democrats criticized a Bush administration food safety plan Tuesday, saying it doesn't do enough to prevent potential hazards confronting the U.S. food supply.

The plan steps up surveillance both imported food and food produced in the United States. But it leaves much of the responsibility for that increased attention to the food industry itself. It also relies on international agreements compelling foreign governments to more closely police companies exporting to the U.S.

In hearings on Capitol Hill, Democrats attacked the plan, saying it won't move quickly enough to restore U.S. consumers' waning confidence in the food supply. That confidence has been shaken by a rash of recalls for products ranging from hamburger meat to lettuce.

"I would think the American people would want a sense of urgency," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The hearings came a day after another report from an FDA advisory board blasted that agency's ability to protect the food supply. The report concluded that the agency has too few personnel and uses antiquated technology.

"FDA's inability to keep up with scientific advances means that American lives are at risk," the report concluded.

"We can't worry where we're going to be 10 years from now," Kennedy said. He was one of several Democrats arguing for new powers and increased funding for the FDA.

Responding 'Urgently'

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said the plan systematically alters protections for the food supply by forcing every company that imports food to certify the safety of its suppliers. The plan also calls for more government inspectors and increased penalties for companies with safety problems.

"We could not be responding more urgently," Leavitt said.

Last month, the House passed a bill giving the FDA the authority to order food recalls if companies don't conduct them voluntarily. The Senate has not acted on the measure. Still, Congress is likely to pursue a more sweeping overhaul of the food safety system, which now is divided among the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and several other agencies.

Cal Dooley, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said his lobbying group favors giving the FDA more power to regulate the food supply. But the group wants the industry itself -- not the government -- to conduct most of the stepped up surveillance.

"We object to prescriptive, mandatory approaches," said Dooley, a former Member of Congress.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the Bush administration plan too narrow to be effective. She said it does not guarantee that regulators can trace tainted food back to its source and that it allows the FDA to crack down on food producers only after it can show that their food may be harmful.

"It simply does not go far enough to address the very real problems with the food supply U.S. consumers have experienced within the last 16 months," she said.

SOURCES: Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Michael Leavitt, secretary, Health and Human Services. Cal Dooley, president, Grocery Manufacturers of America. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director, food safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Food Protection Plan, Department of Health and Human Services, Nov. 6, 2007.

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