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Food safety concerns grow as imports to US surge

The FDA is able to inspect only 0.7 percent of all imported food products from more than 130 countries.

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After E. coli bacteria were found in spinach last October, consumers turned to American-grown produce and asked the burning question: "How'd that get there?"

After pet-sickening melamine was found in wheat gluten from China in March, attention shifted to pet food and people asked: "What's in this stuff?"

Now, with news that Chinese feed suppliers may have intentionally disguised the contents of exports to escape food inspection, the questions have reached the broadest level yet: "With the increased globalization of America's food supply, who should be monitoring all the food coming in from foreign countries?"

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Many call for more funding for inspection agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture. Others say there must be new, voluntary standards by American importing companies themselves, with the burden and cost of inspection borne by importers. A final set of solutions involves urging the governments of other countries to implement their own standards, with the realization that their international reputations are at stake.

Critics of the current inspection system say the problems have been building for years.

"Our food inspection system in America is broken and collapsing further all the time," says Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D) of Connecticut. Claiming 15 different agencies are subject to 35 different laws, she and Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois in February reintroduced the Safe Food Act, calling for a single food safety agency and standardized procedures to govern American food safety. The bill requests $650 million more in 2008 appropriations for the FDA's food inspection program.

Concerns have mounted, Representative De Lauro says, as details have tumbled out from FDA investigations in China showing that melamine-contaminated wheat gluten made it into American pet food. The FDA found that more than 700 tons of mislabeled wheat gluten were shipped out of China through a third-party textile company.

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