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Congress Debates Moves on Food Safety

Democrats Attack Bush Plan as Too Little, Too Slow
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by 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.

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