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US Food Industry Gears Up for Tougher Inspections in Fight Against Terror - 2003-11-26

The Bioterrorism Act, passed by Congress last year as part of the Homeland Security effort, will go into effect next month. It imposes stringent new requirements for inspection and record-keeping on food imported into the United States. As the deadline approaches, farmers, shippers and importers are rushing to come into compliance with the law. But some worry the new regulations will cut into their business, without delivering on safety.

For specialty food importer Freida's, the new anti-terrorism law will transform each day's business. The company's refrigerated warehouse near Los Angeles is crammed with spikey orange Kuano melons from New Zealand, starfruit from Thailand, scaly, green-skinned cheremoya from Chile, exotic fruits and vegetables from around the world.

Starting early next month, all of Freida's foreign suppliers will be required to register with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and let federal officials know in advance before any food enters the country. The farmers and shippers must also keep the names of every person who handles the produce, from the field to the packing company.

Cris West, who manages relations with Freida's foreign trade partners, says they're anxious. "They've had a lot of questions as to, you know, are they going to get tied up at the dock or the airport? Is it going to take longer for the FDA to inspect," he said.

Freida's has built its business on the exotic. But, ordinary produce from around the world - tomatoes, bananas, onions - crowd American grocery store shelves. In fact, fully one third of all the products imported each year into the United States are fruits and vegetables.

Federal officials predict they'll receive about 25,000 advance notifications of food shipments every day, detailing what will arrive at the border, and when. They say they need the notice to schedule inspections of foods that are vulnerable to tampering or that come from regions where officials suspect a terrorist threat.

Truckers who bring much of the produce into the United States say getting across the border has become more difficult since the September 11 terrorist attacks two years ago and they expect the new regulations to make it even more complicated.

Drivers like Richard Loranzano are skeptical of FDA promises to have inspectors waiting to check so called "high risk" cargoes. "It's gonna delay produce getting to the market, getting to the consumer. I mean, it's just gonna hold everything up, I believe," he says.

Inspectors may impound food that arrives in the United States without the proper documentation. The delays that would follow such seizures worry Donna Gerren of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. ""Those very tight margins that our companies run on could make or break a company. You know, any type of delays, also losing customers because of delays and things like that, we could see companies not able to adjust to these new regulations," she says.

But tougher regulations are long overdue, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. "Prior to September 11, 2001, FDA was inspecting less than 1 percent of food that was shipped into the U.S. Now they're inspecting up to two percent. But it's still nowhere near enough," she says.

And she says, it's not what Congress expected when it passed the Bioterrorism Act last year. The law originally required shippers to give officials a full 24 hours' notice before crossing into the United States. But after organizations like the Fruit and Vegetable Association called that requirement 'unreasonable,' it was reduced to as little as two hours for truckers.

Ms. Smith DeWaal says companies can even use a different border crossing than the one they reported to the Food and Drug Administration. "FDA hasn't given itself enough margin of protection to insure that they can identify all the high-risk food shipments and actually get inspectors to the ports to check them. Congress intended for the legislation to result in strong protections. But FDA, after intensive lobbying by the food industry, has significantly weakened these protections," she says.

Importers say they hope the government provides adequate training so FDA agents can enforce the safety standards they do have.

Inspecting produce - and identifying threats - is not an easy job. Two years ago, agents came across Chinese melons covered with a white powder they thought might be anthrax. They impounded the whole shipment until the importer explained that the suspicious dust was a naturally-occurring residue on the melon rind.