Economic factors pushing surge in food imports-FDA

WASHINGTON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - U.S. consumers, eager to save a few dollars, are contributing to the surge in imported food products, a top official at the Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday.

"There are economic factors that are pushing" this growth in food imports, David Acheson, FDA's food safety czar, said at a conference on food policy. "The expectation is, I don't want to pay $5 for a head of lettuce. How are you going to deal with that? You import the food," he said.

Although food imports are growing at 15 percent a year, FDA inspected about 1 percent of the goods under its purview in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006. An estimated 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported.

The FDA, which is in charge of 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables and processed foods, has been criticized as being too passive in handling the growing surge of imports into the United States.

Lawmakers and consumer groups have argued that Americans are skeptical of imported food and other products after a series of safety scares, pushing the food safety system into a crisis situation.

Consumers "are for the first time in a very long time beginning to understand that there are problems with the food safety system," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA. Reform "is long overdue," she said. "Too much is as stake."

DeLauro said she planned to introduce legislation next week that would improve food safety in the United States. A separate bill proposed in the House would increase FDA's inspection of imports and give it the ability to recall unacceptable products.

U.S. food companies have asked for tougher government guidelines on how companies verify imported foods or inputs, along with more money for the FDA, widely seen as understaffed and underfunded.

"The global food supply is definitely driving us in a direction where we have got to change," Acheson said, adding that changes must occur at home and abroad to be effective.

Earlier this week, he told lawmakers the agency needed wider authority to do its job.

FDA is in the process of crafting a new food strategy that would focus more on prevention by identifying where the risks are the greatest, rather than reacting to situations, largely through inspections.

Acheson said the plan has been "fast-tracked" and should be released later this year.

A separate report from the Bush administration that would recommend steps to ensure the safety of imports in order to restore public confidence is due in November.