The Food and Drug Administration has proposed sensible steps to cope with the dangers posed by a flood of imported food, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices. The trouble is, Congressional Republicans are determined to cut the agencyís budget when it ought to be getting an increase to deal with this worsening risk.
Nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables and 80% of the seafood eaten in the United States now come from abroad. Half of the medical devices and 80% of the active ingredients in medications sold here are also made elsewhere, often in countries whose regulatory systems and manufacturing standards are weak.
American companies and American regulators screen only a tiny sample of the imports. In recent years, a contaminated blood-thinning drug was linked to 81 deaths in the United States, contaminated pet food killed or sickened thousands of cats and dogs and counterfeit test strips to monitor blood sugar levels posed a risk to diabetics. Those products were made in China, which often resists American efforts to investigate contamination or counterfeiting cases on its soil.
The FDA now wants to move beyond intercepting harmful products that have reached American ports or markets to beefing up its nascent efforts to prevent those goods from ever reaching this country. The agency proposed this week to create global coalitions of regulators and a global database to better identify problems at manufacturing plants and to save resources by consolidating inspection efforts.
Thatís all to the good. But the agency needs to clean up its own act in this country as well. Its antiquated computer systems canít talk to each other, making it difficult for inspectors to determine which imports need close scrutiny. An inspector generalís audit found that the agency has often been slow to recall imported foods contaminated with salmonella or other dangerous microbes.
A new food safety law requires the FDA to inspect 600 foreign food facilities within a year and greater numbers each year thereafter. That will require increased financing. Yet House Republicans have voted to reduce the agencyís budget, and some Senate Republicans are resisting offers by food producers to pay fees to underwrite inspections abroad and in this country because they consider that a tax. Some Republicans would rather adhere to their antitax ideology or insist on steep budget cuts than protect consumers from a clear and rising danger.