The FDA announced stricter rules on record keeping by food importers and distributors Monday, just days after Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson warned of dangers to the U.S. food supply from terrorists.

FDA officials announced a planned tightening of rules for much of the food industry, which require companies that distribute, store, or ship foods to keep detailed records on the source of the shipments. The records are designed to make it easier for regulators to “trace back” the origin of foods in the event of contamination or an outbreak.

The rules, required under a 2002 law bolstering U.S. bioterrorism defenses, have been in development for many months.

"For the life of me I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” Thompson said at a news conference Friday.

It was unclear whether Monday’s announced rules would make it more difficult for terrorists to carry out such an attack. FDA officials say the rules do not give them the authority to inspect more food shipments from overseas. The agency is responsible for policing about 80 percent of the imported U.S. food supply but physically inspects just 2percent of shipments.

Other rules close to completion by the agency require foreign companies shipping food to the U.S. to register with the U.S. government.

“The ability to trace back will enable us to get to the source of the contamination,” says Lester M. Crawford, the FDA’s acting commissioner.

The new rules announced Monday give regulators the authority to seize records from food companies and distributors if they believe shipments could pose a serious health risk to consumers. The rules exempt restaurants, retail grocery stores, and U.S. farmers, though FDA officials said they would have enough information from other sources in the food supply chain to compensate.

Large companies have one year to comply with the new rules, while smaller businesses have 18 months to two years.

Crawford appeared to downplay the comments from Thompson, who is set to leave the Bush administration Feb. 4, 2005, or sooner if the Senate approves a replacement.

“We are concerned as much about food as we are about anything else that might affect safety and security in this country,” Crawford says. “It will always be a concern for people who are in charge, and it should be.”

Crawford says inspecting more overseas food shipments are not necessarily an option because of manpower and costs. Instead, the agency relies on intelligence reports and registration from foreign shippers to direct the physical inspections it performs in ports.

“We don’t need and we cannot inspect every article of food,” Crawford said. “The question has always been how much we can afford to inspect.”

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Tommy G. Thompson, secretary, Department of Health and Human Services. Lester M. Crawford, acting commissioner, FDA.