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FDA bolsters food-tracking measures

Regulations designed to aid in pinpointing contamination source

WASHINGTON -- New rules announced yesterday will make it easier to investigate a bioterror attack on the US food supply, though they won't change the underlying problem: the vulnerability of the nation's food.

The vulnerabilities were highlighted last week by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who said he worries "every single night" about a possible terror attack on the food supply.

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," Thompson said at a news conference announcing his resignation.

Thompson singled out the possibility that infected food could be imported from the Middle East, but specialists say the threat is equally serious for food produced domestically.

"There are any number of threats, and they range from what's done across the oceans to what's done in the kitchen in the restaurant that you're eating in," said Michael Osterholm, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota, a project of the Department of Homeland Security.

The regulations announced yesterday by the Food and Drug Administration aim to trace the source of food contamination after the fact. Most businesses involved in the nation's human and animal food supply will have to keep records showing where they received food and where they shipped it. The idea is to help investigators figure out where in a long chain a particular item may have been tainted.

The regulation announced yesterday is the fourth in a series of FDA rules implementing a 2002 bioterrorism law, passed after the 2001 anthrax attacks by mail.

Previous regulations required food facilities to register with the FDA and those exporting food to the United States to give American inspectors advance notice before shipments arrived.

These are commonsense rules that will help FDA trace the source of contamination, but they don't do anything to prevent attacks, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Also needed, she said: more FDA inspections of food coming into the country and the authority for the agency to inspect foreign plants.

DeWaal noted that after the anthrax attacks the FDA received $100 million to increase inspections of food coming into the country, but still inspects only 2 percent of it -- up from 1 percent a few years ago.

The FDA regulates 80 percent of the US food supply; the Department of Agriculture regulates the rest. DeWaal said Agriculture rules require inspections of meat and poultry plants abroad, something she says the FDA would benefit from.

The agency responded that it is doing a better job picking which food to inspect once it arrives at US ports, using newly mandated data filed by companies that import into the country.

"We don't need and can't inspect every article of food," Crawford said. Still, he said, something lethal could slip through. "We have a long, long border that is not wired and not fenced," he said, while adding, "We are far better off than we were three years ago."

The threats are wide-ranging: a deadly toxin injected into the food supply; germs infecting livestock at a fair, and then humans in turn; terrorists dropping pathogens into food at a restaurant chain, causing small amounts of illness but large amounts of publicity.

"People would stay away from that chain in droves," Osterholm said. What matters is the effect on American psyches, he said.

Large companies have a year to comply with the new regulations. Smaller companies have up to two years.

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