Not safe enough

November 12, 2007

There are a few good things to say about President Bush's proposals, announced last week, to protect Americans against tainted food and products from abroad. Most important is the belated recognition that the Food and Drug Administration should have the power to require recalls.

But other parts of the proposal don't go far enough. And while the administration's willingness to join the import control bandwagon is welcome, Congress is far ahead on proposals that might result in greater safety.

The convenience of more consumer choices has been undercut by the uncertainty of not knowing whether goods that are eaten or handled are hazardous to health, as an array of contaminated products, from pet foods to toys with dangerous lead levels, have infiltrated American markets in recent months. Growing - and justifiable - alarm has fueled calls for more effective controls, and rightly so.

But the plan being promoted by Mr. Bush, who has traditionally resisted increased regulation, is a mixed bag. In addition to authorizing recalls of bad products rather than trying to persuade importing companies to act, Mr. Bush would send inspectors abroad to block tainted products at the source.

That would properly shift more safety responsibility to overseas manufacturing plants and not rely so heavily on catching dangerous products at U.S. ports. The possibility of hefty fines - up to $10 million - should be an incentive for companies to establish stricter safety standards abroad and enforce them more vigorously.

What's missing from the plan are effective ways to trace the sources of tainted products that become subject to recalls; a more coherent and comprehensive food safety structure - namely, combining responsibilities of the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a single agency; and a better sense of what the administration is willing to pay for safer food and products.

Some of these missing elements are included in proposals being considered in Congress, particularly a food safety bill co-sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. Although Mr. Bush has been slow to come to the table, his presence now should give a push to these efforts and hasten the day when Americans can be assured that food and other products they consume from abroad are safer.

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