Food imports need more than just review
President Bush has named a panel to come up with ways to minimize dangers from imported foods and products.
LOGIC would dictate that as imports of food and other products increase, the federal government would similarly boost the number of inspectors and laboratories needed to protect American consumers.
Instead, the counterintuitive bureaucracy of the Food and Drug Administration -- with a string of turnovers in its leadership, skewed financial priorities and a negligent administration -- has left the public with weak shields against tainted products.
President Bush's creation of a "working group" of Cabinet members to survey the problems appears to be more about checking criticism in the wake of consumer concerns about contaminated imports from China and elsewhere. Because Bush ordered that group to find solutions "within existing resources" -- meaning without more funding -- it is unlikely that one of the government's most dysfunctional agencies will improve.
Since 2000, imports of FDA-regulated foods have more than doubled, with the volume of products from China -- the third largest supplier of food to the United States behind Mexico and Canada -- having risen 350 percent.
With the FDA inspecting about 1 percent of imported foods and sampling even less for testing, it is difficult to accept FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach's claim that the agency can do its job better by shuttering seven of its 13 laboratories.
FDA inspectors, assigned to just 90 of the 300-plus ports under the agency's control, have an average of 30 seconds to decide if a shipment should get closer scrutiny. The current practice of outsourcing tests to uncertified private labs further undermines safety.
Von Eschenbach, a longtime Bush friend, is the third to head the FDA in five years. That the permanent position of such an important agency was left vacant for the first two years of Bush's administration indicates the president's priorities.
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