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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators sent President George W. Bush a letter on Thursday demanding greater funding for food safety after dangerous spinach, beef and other food tarnished consumers' confidence in the U.S. food supply.
"Additional funding for (the Food and Drug Administration) is an important step toward improving our ability to protect human health and welfare," 23 senators from both parties wrote in the letter, also directed to budget director Jim Nussle.
They asked for a "significant increase" in the fiscal 2009 budget for the food safety activities in the agency, which is responsible for the safety of 80 percent of U.S. food supply.
The Agriculture Department inspects other foods, such as meat products and eggs.
Paltry inspection budgets at the FDA, which oversees almost half a trillion dollars in processed foods, fruits and vegetables a year, have meant the agency inspects only a small fraction of food sold in the United States.
"Additional funding would allow the FDA to hire more inspectors, pursue additional compliance and enforcement actions, and improve its data management," they said.
Lawmakers said greater inspections were particularly important as the volume of imported food increases dramatically, with farm goods from China, for example, growing from $1.2 billion to $2.1 billion from fiscal 2003 to 2006.
Many of the worrisome products that have surfaced recently -- including fish and pet food -- have come from China, but it has not been the only problem country. Much of the hazardous food has been produced domestically.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters on Thursday that the FDA budget should be doubled over five years.
"This is a matter of enormous urgency. We know what needs to be done," Kennedy, joined by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Sen. Dick Durbin and industry and advocacy groups, said in the news conference.
Both Congress and the Bush administration have reacted vocally to the spate of food -- and other product -- scares in the past year and a half, but the final scope of improvements that will be made to the current system remains unclear.
The Bush administration convened a blue-ribbon panel this year that has initiated a reform process, but critics say it lacks money and teeth.
Lawmakers in both houses have floated a series of bills, but even advocates of change say that major reform is unlikely to be passed into law in the near future.
Editing by Marguerita Choy