Nov. 6, 2007 -- Seeking to respond to public concern over food safety, Bush administration officials announced plans Tuesday to boost government oversight of imported and domestic food.
The plan comes as Congress debates reforms for federal food inspection services that in general go further than the plans announced by administration officials. Many of the plans won't take effect until next year -- at the earliest -- depending on what Congress decides to do.
Government officials said their plans focus on increasing technology use and information sharing between companies and federal agencies.
"The primary goal is to prevent contaminated food from ever reaching the consumer," says Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, the FDA commissioner.
But chief among the administration's proposals is a move to give the FDA increased authority to order food recalls. Currently the agency relies on voluntary company recalls, usually under the implied threat of bad publicity for a manufacturer with a safety problem.
Republicans in Congress and in the Bush administration in the past have resisted calls to increase the FDA's regulatory authority. Repeated safety scares on products ranging from imported toothpaste to domestic chili and beef have since intervened.
"That is a role government alone can and should play," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt says of the recall authority. "We have not had that in the past."
The plan calls for better communication between federal agencies responsible for food safety and also includes a plan to use certified, nongovernment inspectors to police food production facilities.
Moves in Congress
Congressional Democrats are crafting bills they say will address safety concerns including foreign and domestic food, as well as toys and other imported products found in some cases to contain lead.
"The recommendations in this report, if acted upon, will help remove many of the hurdles that have prevented meaningful reform of our food and product safety systems," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate assistant majority leader, says in a statement.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a government watchdog group, calls the administration's support for more FDA authority "good news." But Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the group, says the plan lacks specifics.
"Blandly calling for 'enhanced cooperation' between FDA, (the US Department of Agriculture), and other agencies is unlikely to bring about the same kind of efficiency that a single strong food safety agency would," Klein says in a statement.
Administration officials also did not say how much the proposed changes would cost or how many new inspectors would have to be hired. Those decisions won't be made public until February, when the White House traditionally makes its budget request to Congress. Final decisions on funding the proposals would then likely wait until a year from now.