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Cabinet panel to focus on food import safety

Calling the problem serious, Bush appoints the group after recent scares involving products from China.

July 19, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush created a Cabinet-level panel Wednesday to improve the safety of imported food and other products, responding to concerns raised after tainted toothpaste and pet food reached the United States from China.

He named Mike Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, head of the panel and gave it 60 days to review U.S. regulations as well as safety procedures in other countries and come up with ways to ensure the quality of imports.

"Food safety and consumer safety is a serious issue," Bush said during a photo session at the end of the committee's first meeting, held at the White House.

The issue is a difficult one for the administration. The president is a proponent of free trade, who favors developing a U.S. market in an economically thriving China. But he cannot ignore the spate of reports on shoddy safety precautions and deceit in Chinese manufacturing and food processing.

With U.S. officials and consumers growing wary of Chinese goods in recent weeks, China has undertaken efforts to restore confidence in its products. In a counter-measure, it also announced Saturday that some U.S.-processed meat had shown signs of contamination and that imports from several large U.S. food companies would be blocked.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration said it would block Chinese catfish, basa, dace, shrimp and eel after tests of the farmed seafood found contamination with unapproved drugs. Toxins have also been found in Chinese exports of juice and toothpaste. And Chinese tires have been recalled for safety reasons.

"This is not a slap at China," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said. "We take food imports from 150 countries around the world and we monitor them all."

At the same time, he acknowledged that it was possible, in the words of one questioner, "to connect the dots to China."

While recognizing that new restrictions could increase trade tensions, the White House spokesman said: "It's important to maintain the safety and security of this country by making sure that things that you import meet the basic health standards."

The panel's makeup reflects the diverse government agencies that play a role in bringing food and other goods from foreign manufacturers into the U.S., regulate the trade and deal with its repercussions.

In addition to Leavitt, Bush named the heads of seven other Cabinet departments to the group -- the secretaries of State, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and Homeland Security, and the attorney general -- as well as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Trade Representative, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

By bringing the group into the White House and setting out its mandate in person, Bush heightened the panel's visibility. But what it can accomplish is unclear. Consumer groups and industry representatives say that unless the government is willing to significantly boost spending to hire more inspectors and regulators -- and give them greater powers -- there is little that can be done to improve safeguards for imported goods.

The FDA, which is responsible for all food imports except meat and poultry, has 625 inspectors to monitor the food supply, whether home-grown or imported. FDA inspectors are assigned according to a triage system that tries to anticipate risk; fewer than 1% of food imports are inspected.

An internal FDA analysis conducted last summer found that the agency's $450-million budget for its foods program had failed to keep pace with rising personnel costs for professional staffers including law enforcement agents, scientists and regulatory lawyers.

The analysis concluded that the program would have needed $176 million more this year to provide about the same level of service it did in 2003.

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.

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