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Talking a good game: the food safety challenge

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do. — Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, in announcing his resignation.

First of all, gee, thanks a lot for expressing this thought before the world's media and giving the terrorists something else for their list of ways to target The Great Satan U.S.

Second, why wait until you're leaving office to voice these concerns? “I worry every single night” about this, Thompson said, noting that food imports from the Middle East offer a particularly tempting target. Were his worries not sufficiently dire during the last four years to speak out?

More puzzling was the timing of his remarks, just days before the Food and Drug Administration trotted out a new regulation to require U.S. food producers and importers to keep records to facilitate tracing through the entire supply/distribution/sales chain any contaminated food item deemed to pose “a significant health risk” to humans or animals.

The regulation, the fourth in a series under the “Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002,” is aimed at providing measures to protect food from intentional or accidental adulteration.

“Understanding and interpreting these complex new requirements will be a top priority for the food industry,” a National Food Processors Association spokesman said.

Although nobody mentioned it, the costs for these additional levels of paperwork — from dirt to plate as it were — will also likely be reflected in the price of virtually everything at the supermarket.

The enormity of all-out protection of the food supply is evident in the statistic that presently less than 2 percent of the 30 billion tons of food imported into the United States each year undergoes random federal inspection. Yet Congress, with the administration's tacit approval, shot down a $239 million proposal to increase that effort.

Of the 35 million cattle slaughtered annually, only about 20,000 get tested, compared to Europe and Japan, which test almost every animal.

But House conservatives voted down an additional $50 million for the U.S. Food Safety Inspection Service to increase inspections of imported meat. An amendment to provide $35 million to the Animal Plant Health Inspection service to boost protection against the dread foot and mouth and “mad cow” diseases was similarly torpedoed.

While it's generally accepted that the United States has the safest food supply in the world, some 76 million Americans are sickened each year by contaminated food; more than 300,000 of them end up in the hospital, and 5,000 of them die. That's without terrorism.

The FDA's less than confidence-inspiring management in the drug safety area (Vioxx being just the latest of many examples) has only increased criticism that it has become a bloated, impotent bureaucracy (60,000 employees and a $543 billion budget last year), and leads one to wonder just how effective it will be in keeping the food supply safe.

Following Secretary Thompson's public hand-wringing, President Bush said only, “We're a large country, with all kinds of avenues where somebody can inflict harm,” and “We're doing all we can to protect the American people.”

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