In October, US lawmakers scrambled to assess terrorist threats to the American food supply and submitted a host of food security spending proposals to address everything from food imports to farm security to packaged foods. Meanwhile, US food manufacturers worked with federal health officials to beef up existing security.

Food security “can no longer be separated from our national security”, said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).

In early October, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) introduced the Biosecurity Act, which calls for spending about US$1.1bn next year and about US$271,000m in each of the next 10 years to modernize US Department of Agriculture (USDA) facilities, implement stiff security procedures, fund a rapid response strategy and provide university grants to thwart bio-warfare.

Another proposal, the Imported Food Safety Act, gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over imported food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, that is comparable to USDA authority for imported meat and poultry. The legislation creates a user fee of imported food that would generate US$56m per year, to be used to fund increased border inspections and developing tests for detection of microbial and pesticide contamination.

Imported food was also addressed in President Bush’s Emergency Funding for biosecurity, in which US$61m has been earmarked for increased inspection – allowing the FDA to hire 410 more inspectors, lab specialists and other experts, and invest in new technology and equipment. USDA has meanwhile been allocated US$45.2m to “help advance the next phase of our emergency preparedness activities and help meet our critical infrastructure needs”, said USDA Secretary Ann Veneman.

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Senate Democrats went even further, with a proposal to spend US$700m for new inspectors for farm and food protection divided as approximately US$600m to the USDA and US$100m to the FDA.

Food Agency Consolidation

All this talk about the vulnerability of the US food supply has rekindled the debate over whether to consolidate US food agencies into a single regulatory system.

Currently, 15 separate federal agencies oversee the production, importing and distribution of food. Each agency has its own set of rules, which sometimes conflict with the rules of others. The USDA monitors the safety of meat, poultry and eggs, and the FDA watches most of the rest of the food supply. But inspection responsibility is sliced up among other departments as well.

Robert Robinson of the US General Accounting Office, which acts as Congress’s investigative arm, called the nation’s food safety system “a patchwork structure” that offers “reason to doubt our ability to detect and fully respond to an organized bio-terrorist attack”.

Tim Hammonds, CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers and wholesalers, said that the current system is ill equipped to handle an attack.

At a hearing on 10 October, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced legislation calling again for a single, independent food safety agency.

“The time couldn’t be better to move this forward, because we’ve now moved our focus from food safety to include food security. Even if the terrorists were put out of business, a single food-safety agency would be the right way to go,” said Durbin.

But the USDA, the FDA and other agencies resist such restructuring, arguing that the existing organization permits adequate cooperation and coordination.

“Our inspectors are on heightened awareness at ports of entry and in food-processing plants,” said Veneman at a recent National Chicken Council conference. “We have stepped up security at appropriate USDA facilities. We are coordinating with other federal agencies such as the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Customs Service and law enforcement agencies on bio-security issues.”

Other news

While the Bush administration continued to urge lawmakers to postpone action on the 2001 US Farm Bill in this time of economic uncertainty and national emergency, both the House and Senate passed farm spending bills of US$74.3bn and US$73.9bn respectively. At issue are continued farm subsidy allocations and new conservation programs. The legislation now goes into a conference committee to work out differences.

An amendment that would have forced USDA to withdraw inspection from meat and poultry plants that failed to meet USDA bacteria limits was defeated in the Senate by a 50-45 vote. At issue was the USDA’s authority to set and enforce pathogen reduction standards and the validity of bacteria testing as a valid way to measure food safety at a plant. A similar amendment was defeated last year, 49-48.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it is renewing for seven years registrations for varieties of Bt corn, which produce their own toxin to kill a moth larva called the European corn borer.

“Bt corn has been evaluated thoroughly by EPA, and we are confident that it does not pose risks to human health or to the environment,” said Steve Johnson, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.

Check back next month for updates and new developments.

By Pam Ahlberg

Pam can be reached by email at: