Food Safety Improvement Plan Unveiled

A trade group representing some of the nation's biggest food companies unveils plans for improving the safety of imported food. The industry is especially concerned these days about tainted products, both from overseas and from home.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Dole Food Company is recalling bagged salad after a sample from a Canadian grocery story tested positive for E. coli. That means the timing is good for a food industry trade group that will unveil plans today to improve imported food.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which includes food giants like Kraft and Nestle, is calling its safety proposal a public/private partnership. Food companies would privately agree to follow new safety standards, to be spelled out today for all imported ingredients, and those standards would be enforced by a public agency, the Food and Drug Administration. Industries don't always welcome increased government scrutiny.

But Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says concern over food-borne illness is forcing the industry's hand.

Ms. CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL (Center for Science and the Public Interest): I think businesses are starting to recognize that keeping consumer confidence means keeping strong regulations.

HORSLEY: Not all food producers agree. California spinach growers, for example, fought off increased regulation in the wake of an E. coli outbreak last year, promising voluntary measures instead.

Despite those measures, spinach tainted with salmonella still made its way to supermarkets last month before being recalled. DeWaal says it takes government oversight to ensure industry-wide compliance.

Ms. DEWAAL: Our food supply is imported from all over the world and the only way to have uniform safety standards is if we have federal regulations in place. No voluntary program will provide that kind of coverage.

HORSLEY: Both DeWaal and the grocery manufacturers have lobbied together to increase funding for the FDA. The agency oversees about 80 percent of the nation's food supply but has the resources to inspect less than one percent of food imports.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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