Bush seeks tougher import and food safety rules
By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Tuesday proposed tougher inspection rules meant to keep dangerous food and other products out of the United States and said he wants broader power to recall food that is unsafe for U.S. consumers.
The move to bolster import protections comes after several product recalls that have raised consumer fears about items such as tainted toothpaste, seafood, tires and toys with lead paint.
"For many years we have relied on a strategy based on identifying unsafe products at the border," Bush said. "The problem is that the growing volume of products coming into our country makes this approach increasingly unreliable."
The volume of goods imported into the United States has grown to $2 trillion in 2006 from 825,000 separate importers. The administration is projecting that import volumes could triple by 2015.
Bush backed the proposals, which were among 50 recommendations made by an advisory panel headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, designed to find ways to improve the safety of U.S. imports.
Many of the recent safety scares have come from China, but Leavitt said the report was not about singling out one country.
He added the panel did not estimate how much the import safety recommendations would cost, but the administration will begin including resources in the president's 2009 budget for some of the proposals.
Among the panel's recommendations, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have the power to order a recall of food when safety concerns arise, a move which would require congressional approval.
Leavitt said he has "complete confidence" that the United States already has "among the safest food supplies on the planet."
The FDA also should have the authority to reach agreements with some countries to require certain high-risk foods meet FDA standards before they can be exported, the panel said.
In addition, the advisory panel recommended new incentives for importers that follow strong safety practices and have good track records. It also would increase training for inspectors in foreign countries so they can stop dangerous goods before they reach the United States.
Cal Dooley, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, praised the advisory commission's report, which included many of the same recommendations the group proposed in September, including mandatory food recalls.
"Consumers must be able to trust the brands they buy and the food they eat," Dooley said.
The report suggested the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which is responsible for monitoring more than 15,000 types of products, could increase penalties for violators and require that importers comply with mandatory safety rules.
The Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection division also could increase the bonds paid by importers.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has called for sweeping changes at FDA, particularly with food oversight, welcomed the report but questioned how it will be administered.
"Based on this administration's track record and philosophy, I have low expectations for their willingness to exercise these new authorities and ultimately, their willingness to implement this report," said DeLauro.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the plan may lack the necessary funding for the FDA and CPSC "to carry out their heavy mandates."
"The administration's working group on import safety leaves consumers in the dark and continues the hodgepodge of federal oversight," Schumer said.
(Reporting by Christopher Doering, editing by Eric Walsh)