WASHINGTON – President Bush on Wednesday established a high-level government panel to recommend steps to guarantee the safety of food and other products shipped into the United States and to improve U.S. policing of those imports. The White House denied the effort was aimed primarily at China.
The president was to meet later Wednesday with his new Import Safety Working Group. The panel will be chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.
"The administration is concerned about the safety of imported products that Americans eat and use and we'll start working on concrete steps to address whatever problems they may uncover," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
The Food and Drug Administration's ability to monitor the nation's food supply has come under sharp criticism from Congress and others amid a string of high-profile cases of foodborne illness, including E. coli-tainted spinach and salmonella-contaminated peanut butter and snack foods, as well as concerns about drug-laced, farmed fish imported from .
"This is not a slap at China," said Snow when asked if he thought China would be offended by Bush's action. "This is in fact a normal piece of business. We get food imports from 150 countries around the world. It's important to monitor them all."
Members of Congress have criticized the FDA's plan to close half of its laboratories.
Bush created the new panel with an executive order.
Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, called the formation of the panel "a wonderful step. The administration is moving aggressively to address the issue."
Earlier, she told a Senate hearing that the rapid growth of imports is putting a strain on her agency. The intense pressures on regulatory agencies was also emphasized by officials from the FDA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the hearing by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Senate hearing, was skeptical about the president's executive order, saying it was more important to adequately fund existing agencies than create a study group.
"We need to have oversight of our marketplace," said Pryor. "I don't know if you need another panel looking at this."
Bush took the action as China announced that teams of food safety officials from the U.S. and China would meet in Beijing at the end of this month to discuss the safety of China's seafood exports. The FDA announced last month that it would detain Chinese catfish and several other categories of fish as well as shrimp and eel after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs that have not been approved in the United States for use in farmed seafood.