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The Food and Drug Administration on Monday announced the final portion of its post-9/11 rules to protect the USA's food supply.
The action comes just four days after outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he can't understand why terrorists haven't attacked the U.S. food supply, because ''it's so easy to do.''
The rules are the final piece of new authorities given to the FDA by Congress in the wake of the anthrax contamination that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That contamination further highlighted the nation's vulnerability to less well-known forms of terrorism and harassment. Five people died because of their exposure to envelopes laced with the deadly bacteria.
The rules require that companies keep records so officials can trace the source of food contamination. The hope is that investigators will zero in on the exact point at which a particular food was tainted.
The new rules will be important in allowing the FDA to deal with food-related emergencies, ''such as deliberate contamination of food by terrorists,'' says Lester Crawford, acting FDA commissioner.
Any company that manufactures, processes, packs, transports, distributes, receives, holds or imports food must keep records showing where it obtained the food and where it shipped it.
Farms, restaurants, food banks and individuals preparing food in the home are exempt.
Companies must retain records, from six months to two years, depending on the shelf life of the food. Larger companies have a year to comply with the new regulations. Smaller companies have 18 months to two years.
Three related rules, all now in effect, require the registration of food producers, prior notice of when food will be imported and the impoundment of food that producers or importers fear could be dangerous.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association both issued statements emphasizing their commitment to keeping the nation's food supply safe while commending the FDA for making its regulations manageable.
Thompson said Friday that he frets over the vulnerability of the nation's food supply ''every single night.''
And Caroline Smith DeWaal, a food safety expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the new precautions are ''hardly rock-solid protection against terrorism.''
What's needed is a beefed-up government presence in the food industry, much like the steps that have been taken to secure the nation's airports, she says.
''We need enough of a government presence in food safety and food security that it acts as a deterrent to using food as a target,'' DeWaal says.
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