Summit News

FDA looks for "boots on the ground" in China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is hoping to bolster the safety of food and other products imported from China by opening a new Food and Drug Administration office in the Asian nation.

Labourers work at a frozen chicken workshop in Lianyungang, east China's Jiangsu province, August 21, 2007. The United States is hoping bolster the safety of food and other products imported from China by opening a new Food and Drug Administration office in the Asian nation. REUTERS/China Daily

“We will be able to continue to expand our own ability to leverage, beyond simply sending inspectors over, but to have people in place,” FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach said during the Reuters Regulatory Summit here.

“We’re boots on the ground,” he said.

FDA officials see the office, which must be approved by the Chinese government and funded by Congress, as a model for outposts elsewhere, which in an era of globalized trade would shift much of the burden for safe imports to producer countries instead of relying on inspections at home.

Von Eschenbach said FDA officials in China, rather than regularly patrolling factories, would seek to create more stringent safety standards among producers and would look to strengthen regulation by Chinese government.

Basing officials in China would also allow the FDA to move quickly when problems do arise, rather than having to secure visas or make long trips before setting off to inspect problem facilities.

The FDA, responsible for more than three-quarters of the U.S. food supply, has been struggling to restore its sheen following a spate of food safety scares, some involving imports, jolted consumer confidence in the past 18 months.

Despite a new, administration-wide initiative to improve safety of food and other consumer goods, critics say the FDA remains underfunded and ineffective.

The FDA’s proposal for a China office appeared in U.S. President George W. Bush’s budget proposal for fiscal 2009, which was released on Monday.

It underscores the administration’s belief that it “cannot inspect its way” to safe food across the country. The FDA now inspects only a tiny share of the food under its authority.

Under the president’s budget proposal, FDA food safety spending at the FDA would grow by less than 10 percent, focusing on heading off problems with contaminated or otherwise unsafe food before it enters the marketplace.

While officials stress that China is not the sole source of worry, the Asian nation is now a major supplier of U.S. consumer goods. Some of the most high-profile scares have involved Chinese goods, such as pet food, seafood, and toys.

How the United States grapples with these challenges with China, with whom it shares a huge and often tense trade relationship, may be a signal of how it manages the task worldwide.

Von Eschenbach said the United States had yet to secure approval from the Chinese government, but characterized Beijing’s approach to food safety as “open” and “cooperative.”

The two countries have already signed several memoranda on product safety.

Von Eschenbach did not specify when the office might open.

“Obviously, I’d like to do it as soon as possible. We have money set aside in 08/09 budgets,” he said.

(For summit blog:

Additional reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Russell Blinch, Richard Chang