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WASHINGTON - On the heels of controversial statements about the safety of the food supply made by outgoing U.S. Secretary Of Health And Human Services Tommy Thompson last Friday, the federal government announced new rules aimed at helping trace the source of contaminated food, particularly in the event of a bioterrorist attack on the nation’s food supply.
The impetus behind the new rules, announced yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration, is to enable investigators to determine the specific origins necessary to trace back tainted food in the event of an outbreak.
Manufacturers and others who work in the nation's human and animal food supply chain will now be required to keep records showing where they received food and where they next shipped it.
The regulations implement part of a law passed after the spate of anthrax attacks that struck in 2001, which cast a spotlight on bioterror-related vulnerabilities to the nation’s food supply. In his resignation speech last Friday, Thompson spoke of concerns about a possible terror attack on America’s food supply. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” Thompson said. “We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that.”
On Monday, however, Thompson sounded considerably more upbeat. "Publication of this record-keeping rule represents a milestone in U.S. food safety and security," he said in a statement. "We have a lot of work yet to do, but our nation is now more prepared than ever before to protect the public against threats to the food supply."
Commenting on the new regulations, Tim Hammonds, president and c.e.o. of the Food Marketing Institute, said: “Food retailers and wholesalers applaud the agency for relying on existing records and technologies -- proven systems that have worked time and again in product recalls. The industry does not need to create new or duplicative records, an unneeded waste of time and resources.
“Most importantly,” Hammonds continued, “should a security threat arise, the rules allow the industry to focus foremost on removing potentially unsafe products from the shelf and alerting consumers. Previous drafts would have forced the industry to waste precious hours on paperwork when we are first alerted to a threat.”
Implementing the Bioterrorism Act, Hammonds said, underscores FDA’s consistent emphasis of “efficiency and public safety over bureaucracy. The registration rules do not call for the creation of company information that is already widely available. The detention rules empower the agency to withhold food that could be hazardous. The shortened prior-notice rules for perishable imports ensure that these products have ample shelf life and will not spoil.”
Speaking for food vendors, Susan Stout, v.p. of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said: "FDA is to be congratulated for its efforts to establish a set of rules that achieve the goals of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. FDA should also be commended for its willingness to work with all stakeholders, including the food industry, shippers, and consumers, to make the bioterrorism regulations workable.”
In its final record-keeping rule, Stout said the FDA “has acknowledged the food industry’s history of maintaining accurate records. For the most part, these regulations build upon existing systems and would provide specific information in the event of an intentional attack against the U.S. food supply. FDA has addressed GMA’s concerns about the workability of record-keeping, as well as industry questions about what specific information must be maintained.”
The reaction from consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest was less glowing. Calling the FDA's new record-keeping requirement a “modest improvement,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the group, said: “Secretary Tommy Thompson is right to think that the food supply isn't as safe as it could be from a terrorist attack. It hasn't helped that most of the anti-bioterrorism regulations that the administration has issued have been significantly watered down under pressure from the food industry.”
Smith DeWaal’s organization, a vocal critic of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA, reiterated the CSPI’s call for a unified food safety agency. “What is needed is brand new legislation that would give FDA authority to visit foreign factories and farms that want to ship food to the U.S., and authority to mandate recall and traceability all along the food supply. Ultimately, the food laws should be comprehensively modernized and food-safety functions combined into a unified food-safety agency, rather than the hodgepodge we have today.”