CSPI says watered down rules fail to protect public

When finalizing rules to prevent a terrorist attack on the food supply, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made too many concessions to food importers, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI this week urged the FDA to reconsider two pending “interim final rules” governing food importation that CSPI says are so watered down that they fall short of what Congress intended when it passed comprehensive anti-bioterrorism legislation in 2002.

One such rule involves the amount of prior notice that importers must give the FDA before food shipments arrive at U.S. ports and border crossings. While an original proposed regulation would have required about a day’s advance notice, the pending regulation would let trucks arrive at border crossings with just two hours notice, planes and trains with four hours notice, and ships with just eight hours notice. And because the FDA would let importers make last-minute changes to their notifications, in some cases food inspectors would effectively have no notice of where high-risk food shipments will arrive.

“It’s shameful that the Bush Administration and the FDA capitulated so dramatically to the demands of food importers and processors,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Unfortunately, they’ve created loopholes so big terrorists could drive 18-wheelers through them.”

In comments filed with the agency, CSPI urged the FDA to require more advance notice of food imports, and to assign FDA inspection personnel at all arrival ports. Currently, the FDA has food inspectors stationed at only 90 of 361 ports of entry into the country. CSPI also filed comments about another proposed rule requiring registration of food importers.

“The recent hepatitis A outbreak, linked to imported green onions, showed how ill-equipped the FDA is to deal with accidental contamination of the food supply,” DeWaal said. “An intentional attack on the food supply could be immeasurably worse. FDA officials should be embracing the new authority given to them by Congress to protect the public, not bending to pressure from the food industry.”