- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

President Bush yesterday set up a working group to recommend ways to ensure the safety of food imported from other countries.

The move comes amid mounting concerns about food and drug imports from China, but White House spokesman Tony Snow said the move is not aimed at that country.

Meanwhile, China said officials from the two nations will meet this month to discuss the safety of Chinese seafood exports.

Mr. Bush’s Interagency Working Group on Import Safety will be headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt and include other top officials such as the secretaries of State, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security, as well as the attorney general, director of the Office of Management and Budget, U.S. trade representative, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The panel will identify measures that can be taken to promote the safety of imports and is to report back to Mr. Bush within 60 days with recommendations.

“This is a serious issue,” Mr. Bush said yesterday after meeting with the working group. “It’s important for the American people to know their government is on top of the situation and constantly reviewing procedures and practices.”

Mr. Snow yesterday said the move is not a slap at China, but “a normal piece of business.”

“We get food imports from 150 countries around the world; it’s important to monitor them all,” he told reporters.

The Chinese Embassy said Beijing takes the issue of food and product quality seriously and “wages an ongoing campaign to address the problem.”

Cases reported so far are “isolated cases,” it said.

Democrats in Congress criticized Mr. Bush’s move as insufficient.

“We are beyond the study group phase,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat.

“We’ve identified the problems with imported food, drugs and other products and now we need to act,” he said, adding that as an initial move Mr. Bush should stop a reorganization of the Food and Drug Administration that has attracted criticism from him and others.

Joint Economic Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Schumer was also critical, saying that, on the surface, the move “does not seem like the full-bore effort that”s needed.”

“We need someone in high authority whose full-time job is to police imports with an eye on China, and we need full funding of the agencies in charge as well as increased inspections,” the New York Democrat said.

China, the embassy statement said, “has not turned a blind eye or tried to cover up” problems with food exports, but had “taken this matter very seriously, acted responsibly and immediately adopted forceful measures to address the problems in the interest of the health and safety of the Chinese public and the consumers of the importing nations.”

China hopes the United States would “respect science and treat China“s food and drug exports fairly,” without exaggerating cases, the embassy said.

“Blowing up, complicating or politicizing a problem are irresponsible actions and do not help in its solution or benefit the sound development of bilateral trade. It is even more unacceptable for some to launch groundless smear attacks on China at the excuse of food and drug safety problems,” the statement said.

In Beijing, Li Yuanping, who is in charge of the safety of import and export products at the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, said the five-day meeting between teams from the U.S. FDA and Chinese food safety officials was scheduled to begin July 31 in Beijing.

Discussions were expected to help relieve tensions triggered last month after the FDA announced that it would detain Chinese catfish, basa and dace, 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.

The officials will discuss the U.S. block on Chinese seafood and future cooperation on food safety, Mr. Li said.

“We hope that this issue will be solved properly,” he said.

The U.S. officials also will visit some Chinese food-processing factories.

Meanwhile, Philippine authorities said they were testing more Chinese products after ordering several candy and cookie brands withdrawn from store shelves because they tested positive for a harmful embalming chemical.

On Tuesday, Philippine authorities warned that some Chinese candies and cookies had tested positive for formaldehyde, an embalming chemical that has been linked to cancer in humans.

Major supermarkets and malls have 15 to 30 days to remove the contaminated items, the bureau’s Deputy Director Joshua Ramos said without elaborating.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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