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CU discusses Food and Drug Import Safety Act

August 10, 2007
The Honorable John Dingell
United States House of Representatives
2328 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515-2215
Dear Representative Dingell;
Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, is writing to thank you for your leadership on food safety and to support your discussion draft, the Food and Drug Import Safety Act of 2007, released last week. In recent years we have seen a slide towards lax oversight and neglect of safety of imported products at the Food and Drug Administration. The recent problems with pet and animal feed ingredients from China that are suspected of causing thousands of pet deaths, as well as with banned chemicals in Chinese farmed fish, have highlighted the need for increased control over food imports. The provisions contained in your discussion draft bill will go a long way towards assuring imported food safety. We urge you to consider ways to improve the safety of domestically produced foods as well.
The proposed Food and Drug Import Safety Act outlines a system of user fees for food and drug importers that would be used to fund significantly enhanced inspections at the borders. Increased inspection is desperately needed—FDA currently inspects less than 1 percent of imported food, and food imports are increasing.
The bill also proposes a mandatory certification system for facilities supplying food to the US that would include a provision for the Department of Health and Human Services to inspect the facility and to revoke certification if problems are detected. This is an excellent proposal, but it we would like to see it go into effect sooner. Your draft calls for a five year delay, which we think is simply too long to allow bad practices to continue. We urge that the requirement for certification go into effect far more quickly, with two years allowed for facilities to come into compliance.
The bill would also limit the number of ports through which food can be imported (currently 360) to cities where there is an FDA laboratory (currently 13), unless the HHS Secretary decides that there is a low risk of serious harm from a food. Limiting the number of ports of entry for imported food is essential to preventing substandard food from slipping through the cracks in the inspection system. Currently, of the 360 ports that can be used for importing food, less than 100 are staffed with FDA inspectors. At the very least, food imports should be required to enter through a port where an FDA inspector is stationed.
The bill would also prohibit FDA from closing any of its 13 labs without Congressional review of its reorganization plan. (FDA originally indicated it would close 7 of the 13 labs, but has suspended that decision.) We support this provision.
The bill also includes two labeling requirements that we support: one for Country of Origin, and another for labeling of food packaged with carbon monoxide (Consumer Reports tests found that such packaging preserves the red color of meat even while the meat may be decomposing).
Finally, the proposed bill would give FDA mandatory food recall authority, something that is long overdue. At present FDA may not unilaterally order a recall even of a product that is life threatening; it must ask the company to recall the product. If a company balks, FDA is forced to take further steps to cajole and persuade them to comply with recall. The public strongly supports mandatory recall authority, which is lacking for both USDA and FDA. In a national Consumers Union poll in 2004, 97 percent of respondents agreed that the government should have mandatory recall authority for contaminated meat, one of the most unified responses we have ever obtained in our polling of consumer opinion.
We are concerned, however, that the Food and Drug Import Safety Act does not include any provisions related to cosmetic products. Earlier this year FDA issued an import alert against imported toothpaste that contained the very dangerous chemical diethylene glycol. Other cosmetics may also contain this or other harmful chemicals. It is not sufficient for FDA’s inspection resources to stay at their current extremely inadequate level with regard to imported cosmetics. We urge you to require user fees and to increase inspection resources for cosmetic imports in this legislation.
Beyond the problems with food imports, critical problems also remain with the safety of domestically produced food, as illustrated by the problems in the last year with packaged spinach, peanut butter and botulism in canned chili. These food safety concerns should also be addressed promptly. FDA inspectors visit domestic food production facilities on average only once every ten years. This inspection system is woefully insufficient to protect public health. Consumers Union strongly supports beefing up FDA’s inspection staff for imports and domestic food production as well.
Consumers Union also supports congressional efforts to create a single food agency to improve oversight and safety. Currently, 15 agencies, including FDA, USDA and EPA, share responsibilities in this area.
One final matter related to an area under your Committee’s jurisdiction: With the importation of hazardous toys and other products from China, Consumers Union has become increasingly concerned about the ability of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to protect consumers. In this regard, we urge your support for increasing the budget of the CPSC, strengthening its enforcement powers, and making its regulatory processes far more transparent.
Again, we appreciate the leadership you are demonstrating on this issue, and look forward to working with you in the weeks and months ahead to enhance the safety of our food supply.
Jean Halloran
Director, Food Policy Initiatives
Sally Greenberg
Senior Product Safety Counsel