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Import safety approach needs overhaul, says report
September, 2007

The US will fail to deal with food safety in an increasingly global market, unless improved preventative checking measures are put in place for imports, a new report warns.

The government panel of experts said yesterday that the current system of random border checks was failing to stem the tide of faulty imports, especially in the face of a rising number of goods manufactured or processed in Asia.

President George Bush quickly established the group earlier this summer after a wave of faulty products from China, namely toothpaste and dog food, sparked food scares that angered both consumers and regulatory bodies.

"Americans rightly expect to purchase food and medical products without having to worry about their safety," said Andrew von Eschenbach, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who was part of the investigative team.

Instead of randomly testing products as they enter the US, the government should "shrink the size of the borders", said group chairman Michael Leavitt, and focus on targeting imports that inspectors suspect would fail safety checks.

These measures need to be put in place soon, the report said, as imported goods are increasing by massive numbers each year.

According to the Washington Post, the value of goods imported by the US has doubled since 2000, to reach an estimated $2.2tn this year.  The value of goods from China, which is the second-largest exporter to the US after Canada, is expected to reach $341bn this year, up almost 25 percent from last year.

The new report will provide the framework for a specific action plan that will be presented to President Bush in November, Leavitt said.

The US has already adopted a risk-based system of checking imports of some fruits and vegetables, targeting risk areas specified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This approach has already increased the number of potentially harmful products seized, as well as shortening the time imports are held up by routine inspectors, the USDA claims.

"This new approach will allow us to focus less on administrative processes and more on the science of facilitating imports that do not pose a risk of introducing foreign pests and diseases," said agricultural secretary Mike Johanns.

He added: "A more efficient review process for imported fruits and vegetables should also help to expand market access for US agricultural exports as other countries recognize US efforts to encourage trade."

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