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President’s Import Safety Action Plan
Leaves Much To Be Desired

We found the “strategic framework” published by the President’s Interagency Working Group on Import Safety to be dubious. Now that the full Action Plan of Import Safety has been published, we remain — – at least at first read — underwhelmed.

You can read the President’s comments here, review a fact sheet on the Import Safety Action plan here and read the text of a press briefing by Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, here.

Along with the import plan, the FDA announced a Food Protection Plan, which you can download here.

There are, surely, a lot of good ideas in the plans, but they are mostly incremental and marginal things that simply will not have a major impact on import safety.

For example, it may be a great sound bite to say that the FDA should have mandatory recall authority, but as we learned in the spinach crisis, the FDA has complete authority to recommend consumers don’t eat something. Since no reputable retailer will sell products consumers are advised not to eat, the FDA has defacto recall authority right now.

Political opponents of the President were also unimpressed:

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the President’s package “leaves consumers in the dark and continues the hodgepodge of federal oversight.”

“Of course we need tougher penalties, more inspections, and better information sharing when it comes to the food and toys coming into our country,” Schumer said. “However, the rubber won’t meet the road until the administration does three key things: Provide the FDA and CPSC with more federal dollars so they can carry out their heavy mandates; give consumers quick and user-friendly access to comprehensive food and product safety information; and set and implement government-wide priorities for import and domestic food and product safety oversight.”

And nothing in the plans seems to change the status quo of food safety regulation being divided between FDA, USDA and other agencies, nor does the plan assure adequate resources:

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, noted that about 61 percent of the $1.7 billion the federal government spends on food safety went to the Agriculture Department in 2003, which is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply.

The FDA, which is responsible for most of the remaining 80 percent, gets only about 29 percent of the total.

“FDA’s food program is very small compared to its task,” said William Hubbard, a top FDA official for 14 years who now pushes for stiffer food safety regulations and more resources for his former employer.

We will take some time to study the recommendations before definitively commenting, but our sense is that the solutions are likely to create their own problems. The idea of a certification mark for food safety for imported food that is believed to pose risks sounds good, but in raising the value of such an audit, one also raises the likelihood of corruption. Not to mention that the plan is vague on how requirements on imported goods that are not imposed on domestic producers could possibly square with our treaty obligations under the WTO.

The once-over tells us that we have a mostly political document filled with admonitions for agencies to have “enhanced cooperation” without really making the kind of substantive changes that would actually make a big difference.

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