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Setting food safety priorities

WASHINGTON -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said April 2 he plans to make the safety of imported food a priority as Congress attempts to reform the nation's food safety system.

WASHINGTON -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said April 2 he plans to make the safety of imported food a priority as Congress attempts to reform the nation's food safety system.

Other committees have held hearings on food safety, but Peterson said at his committee's first food safety hearing that imports "have not been focused on."

Last year, after a breakout of Salmonella Saintpaul, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to eat certain types of tomatoes, but later determined that jalapeno peppers imported from Mexico were the source of the problem. The U.S. tomato industry suffered massive losses.

USDA, FDA

Much of the hearing focused on the differences between the approaches of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has responsibility for meat, poultry and eggs and inspects products daily, and the FDA, which has responsibility for most other foods and deals with problems after they occur. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the FDA, but the House Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over FSIS. The two committees have to work jointly to produce legislation that affects both agencies.

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Chandler Keys, a lobbyist for JBS, which has beef operations in Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Italy and the United States, said the meat that JBS imports from Australia, first is inspected by Australian government inspectors under an equivalency agreement with FSIS and then inspected a second time at the U.S. border. Keys also testified that about 90 percent of JBS's U.S.-produced beef will bear a U.S. produced label.

But David Dever, CEO of Pandol Brothers, a Delano, Calif., firm that grows fruits and vegetables and also imports them, said that FDA leaves the growing conditions for domestic and foreign producers up to the companies unless there is a problem.

"FDA must develop a rule-making procedure that establishes risk and science-based regulations for the production, handling and distribution of fruits and vegetables" to minimize the risk of microbial illness, Dever said.

FSIS criticism

Michael Taylor, a George Washington University health policy professor who served as a deputy FDA commissioner and as administrator of FSIS in the 1990s, Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano, who served as undersecretary for food safety in the Bush administration, and Carol Tucker Foreman, a fellow at the Consumer Federation of America who served as assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services in the Carter administration, all testified that Congress should give the FDA's food safety division a mandate to prevent food-borne illness rather than continue its current mandate to stop the spread of illness after it breaks out.

Tucker Foreman has often been critical of FSIS in the past, but she testified,

"I've come to think of the Food Safety and Inspection Service as a the Rodney Dangerfield of food safety. It gets no respect despite having made major strides in the past 15 years to improve its food safety efforts," she explained. "Since 1994, the FSIS has come out of the dark ages. Unlike FDA, the FSIS system is focused on preventing fooborne illness. For imported products, FSIS has established a system for determining whether imported meat and poultry products are as safe as domestic products, unlike FDA, which has no authority to restrict imported food."

Murano said her biggest complaint about FSIS today is that it does no research of its own. Murano said that when she was undersecretary she worked with other USDA research agencies for research on food safety.

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The issue of whether there should be a single food safety agency came up, but the witnesses said it is more important to solve the problems than to create one agency. But John Hanlin, vice president for food safety at Minnesota-based SuperValu stores said food safety operations should be combined because so many foods are processed that they come under FSIS at one point and later under FDA.

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