- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

Companies that import agricultural products are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to relax proposed bioterrorism rules, which they say would lead to a breakdown in the system that puts groceries onto American tables.
Congress last year passed and President Bush signed a bill mandating new rules to protect America's food supply against contamination by terrorists.
"We must and we will improve inspections of food entering our ports, and give officials better tools to contain attacks on our food supply," Mr. Bush said when he signed the bill in June.
The FDA responded with proposed regulations allowing food to be traced backward and forward through the distribution chain. That includes a requirement to give the FDA detailed information about food shipments by noon the day before they arrive at U.S. ports of entry.
The United States imports $50 billion in food per year from about 100,000 foreign manufacturers, the FDA estimates.
An average of 20,000 notices concerning imported food would be submitted daily via an Internet-based system, the FDA said.
The FDA estimated that, just for fresh produce from Mexico, the new rule would result in delays costing $16.6 million.
"The impact on my business will prove to be devastating if the prior notice rule is implemented in its current form," James E. Chamberlain, president of Rockville-based Chamberlain Distributing, said in a letter to the FDA.
Chamberlain imports fresh produce from Mexico through Nogales, Ariz. Perishable food would be forced to sit in warehouses or at the border, where it would decline in appearance and quality, and become even more vulnerable to intentional contamination, the letter said.
The FDA received dozens of letters like Mr. Chamberlain's before the proposed rule's public-comment period expired earlier this month. The agency now is reviewing the comments and will determine what, if any, changes are necessary.
"I cannot predict significant or other changes. We certainly will consider the comments. We have heard the comments loud and clear," said an FDA spokesman, who asked not to be named.
"Our intent is to comply with the legislation and what the president signed but also not to impede trade," the spokesman added.
The final prior-notice rule is expected to be announced by Oct. 12 and enforced starting Dec. 12.
Along with individual importers and producers, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a nationwide association of food and beverage companies, is working for more-flexible rules.
"GMA is concerned that without modification, the prior-notice system will incur a 'systemic failure' with shipments of food from outside the United States unable to be entered in reasonable periods of time, and FDA not better able to identify 'high risk' shipments than without the prior-notice system at all," the association told the federal agency in an April 4 letter.
The association expects that FDA will make some changes in the rule. But it is "too early in the process to see where those changes will be," said Stephanie K. Childs, spokeswoman for GMA.
The Bioterrorism Act, in addition to the prior-notice section, included three other food-safety components.
The FDA has published a proposed rule that requires domestic and foreign food facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food for human or animal consumption in the United States to register with the agency.
The FDA also is making rules related to maintenance and inspection of food records, and the legal basis for detaining food if the agency believes it presents a threat of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.
The proposed FDA rules do not apply to food carried by tourists for personal consumption.

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