Support grows for stronger regulation of imports

WASHINGTON The White House has voiced support for extending federal oversight of food safety beyond the nation’s borders to the points of origination for imports, addressing what many experts regard as the top current risk to the U.S. food supply.

In a letter to two lawmakers, Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt said the law empowering the Food and Drug Administration to safeguard the nation’s foods, drugs and cosmetics has “not kept up to date” with “global marketing realities.” He suggested that the legislation should be amended to provide the agency with “explicit extraterritorial jurisdiction” over sources of food products that are imported into the United States.

However, Leavitt did not say how Washington would guarantee recognition of the FDA’s expanded jurisdiction by foreign governments, some of which have flatly refused to grant U.S. officials access to plants or regulators. Food-safety specialists often cite the irony that China refused to let FDA officials check out a factory that was believed to be the source of a wide-scale pet-food poisoning last year, but reporters from The New York Times were able to get into the warehouse and pinpoint the source.

Nor did Leavitt address the issue of funding for the FDA. Many experts have warned that the agency lacks sufficient funds to fulfill its current obligations. Expanding the administration’s scope would presumably further tax the HHS agency’s current level of resources.

The letter was disclosed Friday by Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. It was a reply to a letter sent in December by two committee members who pressed Leavitt to consider an expansion of the FDA’s jurisdiction beyond the United States.

“Leavitt’s agreement with this idea now broadens the support to Health and Human Services and the president’s top adviser on import safety,” said a statement from the Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The December letter was co-written by Reps. Joe Barton of Texas and John Shimkus of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

At present, imports in effect become subject to the regulation of the FDA — or in some instances, the U.S. Department of Agriculture — at the point of entry into the United States.