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WASHINGTON - Customs agents along U.S. borders have become food inspectors to monitor food imports more closely for signs of bioterrorism, federal officials announced Wednesday, according to AP.
Deputy Customs Commissioner Douglas Browning said U.S. Customs and Border Protection, together with the Food and Drug Administration, has trained 1,600 to 1,800 officers to search for contaminated food.
Browning and FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan have signed an agreement permitting the FDA to commission as many customs officers as necessary to work on the FDA's behalf to inspect food shipments.
At least two FDA-trained customs officers are now stationed at most of the 300 major ports of entry around the country, Browning said. Ultimately, all 18,000 customs officers along the borders could be trained, working in places where the FDA has no inspectors.
Officials could not immediately give a cost estimate for the program.
The agreement is part of several measures officials are taking in response to bioterrorism legislation passed by Congress last year requiring the government to better monitor food imports.
McClellan said that the customs agents would help the FDA comply with new rules requiring importers to give regulators two to eight hours' notice, depending on the mode of transportation, of the arrival of a food shipment. The new rules additionally require the registration of food facilities operating in the U.S. market. About 100,000 firms, most of them foreign, have registered before the Dec. 12 deadline, but officials said enforcement would be flexible initially while firms adjust to the changes.
According to McClellan, additional food inspectors along the borders could help prevent naturally occurring diseases like the hepatitis outbreak, linked to contaminated green onions from Mexico, that killed three and made hundreds ill.