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WASHINGTON - A group of House Democrats has introduced legislation granting federal officials broad new authority to inspect food and close American ports in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that intentionally contaminated food will enter the US.
Lawmakers billed the proposal as part of an effort to deal with growing fears that a biological or chemical attack could come in the form of purposely contaminated food. Their bill gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) the authority to recall and ban contaminated imports, and also to ban shipment of fruits and vegetables from any country suspected of supporting or harboring terrorists.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI) said that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only 150 inspectors to police 307 ports, leaving the vast majority of foods under its jurisdiction uninspected. The FDA has responsibility for fruits and vegetables, while meat and poultry imports fall under the jurisdiction of US Department of Agriculture inspectors.
"Americans are being used as guinea pigs," he said.
The bill also gives the HHS secretary the ability to close US ports that are left uninspected by FDA personnel.
Lawmakers, especially Democrats, have long criticized the FDA for having only enough personnel to inspect about 1% of all non-meat and poultry imports entering the US. Indeed, some of the bill is a reprise of food inspection proposals introduced but largely ignored in past Congresses.
"We have to assume now, which I don't think we did in the past, that food will be intentionally adulterated," said Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ).
The bill also gives new powers to the FDA to track food imports to their source in foreign countries. The legislation seeks more money for research and development of rapid tests to detect E. coli, salmonella, pesticides and chemical contaminants.
Sponsors want food importers to help fund the cost of expanded inspections by paying up to $20 in fees for each cross-border transaction they make. They said that the fees could generate up to $56 million per year for the efforts. Those fees could lead to higher food prices at the grocery store.
"The American public, I think, is willing to spend a few extra cents," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat co-sponsoring the legislation.
Sponsors said that parts of their bill are based on recent comments from HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson prioritizing imported food safety during America's emerging war on terrorism. Rep. Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that Thompson "felt strongly" that he needed new authority to boost FDA food inspections.
The secretary's spokesman could not be reached for comment before press time.