Import safety action plan unveiled

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON ― The Interagency Working Group on Import Safety presented President George W. Bush today with its recommended action plan, which contains short- and long-term recommendations for continuing to improve the safety of imports entering the United States. The plan contains 14 broad recommendations and 50 action steps that provide a road map for better protecting American consumers and enhancing the safety of the increasing volume of imports entering the United States.

It proposes a strategy focused on risk-based prevention with a verification component that allocates import safety resources based on risk. The action plan proposes steps to replace the current "snapshot" approach to import safety, in which inspections are made at the border, with a prevention-focused model that maximizes the impact of public and private safeguards by identifying and targeting critical points in the import life cycle where risk is greatest and focusing attention and resources on these areas.

In 2006, the United States imported nearly $2 trillion of goods through more than 825,000 importers. Experts project the value of imports will triple by 2015. Physically inspecting every item would bring international trade to a standstill and divert limited resources from those items posing the greatest threat.

The plan’s highlights include:

• Creation of a stronger certification process to foster compliance with U.S. safety standards. For example, the Food and Drug Administration should have the authority to require producers of certain high-risk foods in a particular country, under an agreement with that country, certify their products meet F.D.A. standards in order to export to the United States. In addition, voluntary certification should be encouraged for foreign manufacturers of other products. Products certified as meeting U.S. safety standards could receive expedited entry.

• A recommendation to adopt best practices to improve import safety and benefit consumers by providing incentives to importers to maintain the highest safety practices for products that carry greater risks.

• Making public the names of certified producers and importers of record that import products only from certified producers so consumers and distributors may make more informed decisions about product safety.

• The importing community, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and other Federal agencies will exchange real-time product and compliance data on each import transaction to better inform decisions to clear or reject import shipments. The Action Plan also recommends strategic information sharing agreements be concluded with foreign governments in order to facilitate the exchange of import and recall data.

• Product safety would be a guiding principle of U.S. cooperative agreements with foreign governments. It also will be important to increase training for foreign inspection agencies to build the capacity of foreign governments to ensure the safety of products exported to the United States. In addition, increasing our physical presence abroad and working with foreign governments and manufacturers will help ensure compliance with U.S. safety standards.

• Congress should give import safety and inspection agencies the ability to strengthen their standards, where needed. The new authorities should take into consideration industry best practices in order to leverage the knowledge and experience of those who best understand how the products are made.

• To hold both foreign and domestic entities accountable and discourage the sale of unsafe products, the Federal government will take steps to strengthen penalties against entities that violate U.S. laws, providing a significant incentive to comply with U.S. requirements.

On Sept. 10, the Working Group presented President Bush with a strategic framework to increase import safety standards that called for several immediate steps. One of these steps was a directive to federal agencies to accelerate their participation in an automated "single window" system for reporting imports electronically. This step will enable better coordination and efficiency to permit information exchange among government agencies and between the government and the importing community in real time.

In conjunction with the action plan, the F.D.A. developed a three-part Food Protection Plan. The plan uses science and a risk-based approach of prevention, intervention, and response to ensure the safety of domestic, as well as imported, foods. It will support the F.D.A.'s ongoing collaboration with other federal agencies that have a role in the safety of the nation's food supply, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Both the Import Safety Action Plan and Food Protection Plan recommend the F.D.A. be authorized to pursue the mandatory recall of food products. The authority would be exercised by the F.D.A. only where the adulterated or contaminated food poses a threat of serious health consequences or death and where a firm either refuses to undertake a voluntary recall or is not acting with sufficient speed.

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