WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush on Wednesday established a Cabinet-level panel to recommend steps to better guarantee the safety of food and other products shipped into the United States.
“It’s important for the American people to know their government is on top of this situation and constantly reviewing procedures and practices,” Bush said after his first meeting with the Import Safety Working Group. The panel would report its recommendations to the president in 60 days.
The White House denied the effort was aimed primarily at China, the source of a variety of imports that have recently been identified as tainted or compromised.
Bush said the administration would work with countries that export products to the United States as well as companies that import products.
“This is a serious issue – food safety and consumer safety is a serious issue. We take it seriously,” Bush said. “The American people expect their government to work tirelessly to make sure consumer products are safe. And that’s precisely what my administration is doing.”
He said his administration would “make sure our food supply remains the safest in the world.”
The new panel is headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt. Other members included the secretary of state, treasury secretary, the attorney general, the White House budget director, the U.S. trade representative, the EPA administrator, the chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security.
Leavitt told reporters, “The world is changing a great deal and Americans have an expectation that the products they buy are safe.”
The Food and Drug Administration’s ability to monitor the nation’s food supply has come under sharp criticism from Congress and others amid a string of high-profile cases of foodborne illness, including E. coli-tainted spinach and salmonella-contaminated peanut butter. and snack foods, as well as concerns about drug-laced, farmed fish imported from China.
“This is not a slap at China,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said earlier when asked if he thought China would be offended by Bush’s action. “This is in fact a normal piece of business. We get food imports from 150 countries around the world. It’s important to monitor them all.”
Members of Congress have criticized the FDA’s plan to close half of its laboratories.
Bush created the new panel with an executive order.
Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, called the formation of the panel “a wonderful step. The administration is moving aggressively to address the issue.”
Earlier, she told a Senate hearing that the rapid growth of imports is putting a strain on her agency. The intense pressures on regulatory agencies was also emphasized by officials from the FDA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the hearing by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chaired the Senate hearing, was skeptical about the president’s executive order, saying it was more important to fund existing agencies adequately than to create a study group.
“We need to have oversight of our marketplace,” said Pryor. “I don’t know if you need another panel looking at this.”
Bush took the action as China announced that teams of food safety officials from the U.S. and China would meet in Beijing at the end of this month to discuss the safety of China’s seafood exports. The FDA announced last month that it would detain Chinese catfish and several other categories of fish as well as shrimp and eel after repeated testing turned up contamination with drugs that have not been approved in the United States for use in farmed seafood.