Feds focusing on import safety
Cracks in import safety have become a national focus this year with recalls ranging from pet foods to children’s toys. It has led to a political and consumer backlash that will place more demands on businesses and government officials to ensure foreign products are safe. The demands, however, are stressing the inspection system as the global economy and more trade deals open up U.S. ports to more goods.
“I believe...that our current import systems are not keeping pace with the growth,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.
In response, the administration has created an interagency working group on import safety that involves 12 federal departments and is headed by Leavitt. The working group provided a report to President Bush on Sept. 10 to push strategic goals of import safety. A follow-up report will be issued later in the year to reflect any new funding, restructuring or changes in law that may be needed to better link government departments mandated with protecting consumer goods.
Leavitt and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns spent the morning of Sept. 12 talking with producers, business owners and front-line inspectors in Kansas City on the issue of import safety. The visit is one of several federal officials will be conducting to “make sure our ideas match reality,” Leavitt said.
A key part of the import-inspection strategy will be to shift from intervening when tainted food is found to “prevention and verification” that will concentrate inspections and resources on food sources most likely to encounter contamination. Inspectors will concentrate more on trouble spots and use technology “to shrink the size of the hay stack” where the needle may be found, Leavitt said.
Quality has to be built into products and there must be a process in place to ensure foreign suppliers are meeting U.S. quality and safety standards, the two secretaries said.
“You can’t inspect everything,” Leavitt said. “If there is one thing I have found in my travels, it’s the vastness of the amount of products that come into this country. It’s not just food.”
Such emphasis on import and export safety and quality is critical in agriculture, Johanns said. Agricultural exports will hit about $79 billion this year and ag imports will be about $70 billion, he said. Next year, each will increase about $4 billion in value, Johanns said. The crossover from manufacturing and imports from other sectors has an effect on agriculture because problems challenge the integrity of a country’s overall inspection and quality system.
“Issues from one sector are very definitely going to impact other sectors,” Johanns said.
Leavitt and Johanns toured Boyle’s Famous Corned Beef, which imports beef and pork from countries such as Chile and Canada. The company, which employs about 45 people, further processes beef, pork, chicken and turkey into marinated, sliced or pre-cooked products for retailers and restaurants. Besides being an importer, Boyle’s also exports its processed meats as well.
Johanns noted he was impressed with Boyle’s traceability system, which can track the final destination of shipped boxes within hours, he said.
A key issue for companies is the growing demand to track product ingredients from fork back to farm. That places particular focus on companies that import food products.
“A lot of this is being driven by businesses who are seeing consumer reaction to this,” Leavitt said.