WASHINGTON -- Seeking to breathe new life into an initiative that has languished for five months, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore called on Congress yesterday to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to prevent foreign fruits and vegetables produced in unsanitary conditions from entering the country.
"No issue is more important than this one," Gore said at a White House event to promote the Democratic bill, first announced in October. "American families want to have confidence in the food that they put on their children's plates."
The measure follows several incidents that gained national TTC attention. In 1996, Guatemalan raspberries were blamed in the illnesses of 1,400 people. Last year, 200 Michigan schoolchildren contracted hepatitis A from Mexican strawberries.
"We think there's an urgency to it," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who is a chief sponsor. "The American people have called for it."
But Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees public health, expressed concern about extending new regulations and about possible trade repercussions, a spokeswoman said.
An estimated 33 million Americans become sick annually after eating infected food, and about 9,000 Americans die each year from complications from such food-borne ailments, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It is not known to what extent imported food is at fault, but 38 percent of all fruit and 12 percent of all vegetables consumed here are grown elsewhere.
The Agriculture Department already has the power to regulate meat and poultry imported from other countries. FDA inspections now occur only after food has been shipped to the United States, and they cover only a small portion of all imports.
While the measure would increase oversight and regulatory authority of the FDA, it does not set out new spending or an increase in staff. In his plan for next year's budget, Clinton proposed an additional $25 million to hire 250 more inspectors for various food safety initiatives.
At the FDA's last count, the agency had 237 inspectors and investigators checking food at nearly 55,000 food producers and establishments. Under the proposed law, FDA inspectors would still be able to inspect only those foreign companies and farms that voluntarily consented to their presence. The FDA could join similar agencies in other countries to draw up standards for imported food and recommend a ban on food from countries that do not meet sanitation standards.
Gene Grabowski, a lobbyist for brand-name companies, said his group was wary.
"We have to see a really good reason and a lot of good results for putting FDA inspectors on foreign soil," said Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Some observers say the measure could trigger trade disputes. The United States took the European Union before the World Trade Organization last year for banning as a health risk American beef that had been treated with hormones.
"If we ever did anything to disrupt foreign trade of food, our balance of payments could be severely affected," said Sanford A. Miller, former director of the FDA's center for food safety, who is now a dean at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio.