The Cabinet-level working group delivered its plan to President Bush this afternoon, outlining steps needed to make the United States less vulnerable to contaminated food and other imports.
The working group convened to respond to the rash of food safety scandals originating in China starting this spring, when pet food contaminated with an industrial chemical led to the death of many pets. Other recalls focused on toothpaste and seafood, and subsequently, imported toys from China have been recalled because they contain lead paint.
"Understanding a global economy requires us all to think about what we consume and where it comes from. You can go to ... your own grocery store, and you'll see bananas that came from Guatemala, you'll see pineapples from Costa Rica, you'll see turkey wings from Canada, you'll see salmon from China and snapper from Vietnam. You've all seen this. That doesn't even begin to include the myriad of other products that are exported to this country: clothing, toys, automobiles, aircraft parts, electronics, furniture and other products," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told the press during a conference call. "The total value of imports is expected to exceed $2 trillion this year. That's nearly twice the size of the economy of Brazil; it's roughly the equivalent size of the entire economies of France or Italy."
The Food and Drug Administration has stated that it isn't up to the task of policing the imported food supply, and that it currently inspects just 1% of imported foods. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, on the other hand, has not acknowledged any short comings, despite reportedly having only one employee responsible for testing all suspect toys. The Department of Agriculture has largely avoided controversy, in large part because it has a legion of inspectors for both foreign and domestic facilities.
The take-home message from the report is that the United States needs to do more to ensure that quality products are leaving foreign shores, because it can't effectively inspect every shipment arriving in the United States. The report was short on specific resources needed to achieve that paradigm shift. It's a change from an intervention-focused strategy to a risk-based approach focused on prevention with verification.
Instead of a point-in-time assessment at the border, we're recommending a focus on the full import life cycle, building safety into the products that we purchase every step of the way. "One way to think about this is that our current strategy is really a snapshot at the border. We're recommending a change that would create a video, in essence, through the entire process," Leavitt said. "This is not unlike preventative medicine.
We seek to avoid disease by eating right and by immunizing our children. Regular screenings increase our ability to detect and prevent disease. And when necessary, we take action to fight disease through medical procedures. All three are there -- prevention, intervention and response. That's what we do in health care, it's time we do the same in import safety." The strategy includes four immediate steps, to:
Convened July 18, the working group took less than two months to draft its report. For more information, visit www.importsafety.gov
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