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Clinton wants ban on unsafe food imports

Lady buying fruit
The bill sought by Clinton would ban imports of unsafe fruits and vegetables   
March 4, 1998
Web posted at: 10:28 a.m. EST (1528 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton is expected to make a new push Wednesday for legislation to ban imports of fruits and vegetables from overseas sources that do not meet U.S. standards.

With imports now accounting for almost 40 percent of fruit consumed in the United States, consumer groups have expressed concern about outbreaks of cyclospora, E. coli and other food-borne diseases linked to unsanitary conditions.

To explain the Safety of Imported Food Act, the president was to be joined at a White House news conference by Vice President Al Gore, several Democratic senators, senior U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) officials and Deputy Commissioner Michael Friedman of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"They want to give this a very high profile and refocus attention on this whole issue," said a food industry source familiar with the event. "By having it at the White House, it kicks it up another notch."

Food-related illnesses prove costly

The USDA regulates meat and poultry, while the FDA has authority over fruits, vegetables and processed food.

A U.S. outbreak of hepatitis A was traced to Mexican strawberries last April   

As part of the FDA's border inspections, employees do visual spot checks and send some produce to laboratories where it is tested for bacteria. Foods that fail inspection are rejected.

According to the FDA, more than $3 billion is spent in the United States each year on medical care related to food-related illnesses.

Last October, Clinton ordered the FDA to develop a plan to halt imports of unsafe fruits and vegetables. He also asked the USDA to create guidelines for farmers to prevent food contamination, and asked the USDA and FDA to help other countries improve their food-safety standards.

Critics: Power Clinton seeks already available

But industry critics contend the FDA already has the power to halt unsafe food imports.

They say the Clinton administration, which still hopes to win fast-track authority from Congress to negotiate trade agreements, is trying to quell congressional concerns about the nation's food supply.

Under fast-track authority rules, trade deals, once negotiated, would have to be voted on quickly and without amendment by Congress. Clinton's opponents have claimed that such trade deals lower barriers to food-borne diseases.

In July 1996, Guatemalan raspberries contaminated with cyclospora sickened hundreds of consumers in the United States and Canada.

Last April, more than 179 U.S. schoolchildren were sickened with hepatitis A after eating strawberries imported from Mexico. That outbreak was prominently featured in television ads produced by U.S. labor unions to try to defeat fast-track legislation.

"This is an outgrowth of the fast-track debate from last year," said Kelly Johnston, a lobbyist for the National Food Processors Association. "This bill has more to do with political science than food science."

The administration's budget proposal for fiscal 1999 contains an extra $74 million dedicated to food safety issues, including about $25 million to pay 250 new FDA fruit and vegetable inspectors.

Correspondent Holly Firfer and Reuters contributed to this report.


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