WASHINGTON The United States has "serious issues" with food imports from China and needs to do more to prevent contaminated products from entering the U.S. food supply, an influential House lawmaker said on Wednesday.
At the same time, Washington needs to toughen up its own outdated food safety laws after a series of food recalls and consumer deaths, Rosa DeLauro told the Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit.
"There is an urgency that we move on strong food safety reform," said DeLauro, the head of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the U.S. Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration.
"I'm optimistic that this could finally be the Congress in which we deal with this," she said, noting that the White House also supports tougher regulations.
The United States needs to ensure that China's food safety standards are at least equal to U.S. standards to prevent tainted imports, said DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat.
She cited incidents when China has shipped mislabeled food, and products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine.
"We have a series of very critical food safety issues in China that need to be addressed," DeLauro said.
U.S. imports from China soared 18 percent to $3.45 billion in 2008 from a year earlier.
Food safety demands likely will cause trade tensions with China, which is both a top market for U.S. food exports and a growing supplier to the United States, DeLauro said.
China complained last week to the World Trade Organization about a U.S. law that blocks imports of Chinese poultry products -- a law put in place by DeLauro's committee.
The law has made U.S. food exporters nervous about possible retaliation. China is a top market for U.S. food exports, which rose to $12.16 billion last year from $8.3 billion in 2007, according to USDA data.
DeLauro said the United States needs assurances that poultry products from Chinese plants are safe before the imports are allowed, as well as better monitoring of imports.
"I continue to believe that trade should not trump public health and I will work with the industry, I will work with the administration to find a resolution" to the dispute, she said.
In 2006, the USDA moved to allow imports of processed poultry from China -- a regulation DeLauro described as "a gift" from former President George W. Bush to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to try to restore U.S. beef trade to China, which had stalled in 2003 when the U.S. found mad cow disease.
DeLauro's committee blocked the rule, but she said she has told the meat industry she is open to taking another look.
The block by Congress is "kind of a slap in the face to the Chinese," a U.S. poultry processor told the Reuters summit.
"I think China ought to be treated just like everybody else we do business with and ought to be respected in terms of what the WTO arrangements are," said Joe Sanderson, chief executive at No. 4 U.S. chicken producer Sanderson Farms Inc
The United States is in an awkward position with the ban, said Elliot Feldman, an international trade lawyer at Baker Hostetler LLP in Washington.
China can export chicken to other nations without issue, and Congress did not consider any evidence of problems with Chinese chicken when it made its law, he said.
Meanwhile, problems with the U.S. food safety system remain unaddressed, Feldman said.
"The Chinese rightly say, 'What's wrong with our chicken?' and rightly ask, 'What about your food products?'" Feldman said in an interview.
"We're in a glass house on these questions," Feldman said.
An estimated 76 million people in the United States are sickened every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest U.S. food safety scare saw about 700 people get sick and nine die from eating peanut products contaminated with salmonella. More than 3,000 food products were recalled.
DeLauro has proposed a bill that would create a Food Safety Administration charged with preventing food contamination.
Her proposal also would give FDA mandatory recall authority, implement traceability and increase penalties for companies knowingly selling a tainted product.
"Unfortunately, we wait until people die before we respond when we've known all along there are problems here," she said.