Tags: Tommy | Thompson | Still | Concerned | Over | U.S. | Food

Tommy Thompson Still Concerned Over U.S. Food Safety

Thursday, 26 May 2005 12:00 AM

Although he admits that food is definitely safer these post-9/11 days of enhanced vigilance, he voiced concern to the audience of security hardware vendors and first responders that, although the Pure Food and Drug Administration has 80 percent of responsibility for inspections of foodstuffs, "there are still not enough inspectors to get the job done."

"We went from 350 inspectors to 700 inspectors. I want to see it to go to 1500," Thompson said.

"We must invest more in technology," Thompson added. "We must be able to advance the amount of time FDA gets [to react to intelligence about suspicious foodstuffs]. This is coming from X country that has caused us problems in the past."

"What we've done in the last three years is significant," Thompson concluded. "Food is safe."

But having made that heady conclusion, Thompson immediately began qualifying.

"Food safety is a passion of mine," Thompson admitted. "I'm still very concerned about safety of our food supply. It got me into a lot of trouble before I resigned."

"It's safer now than four years ago. We had $150 million to spend this past year, and we inspected 100,000 shipments this year. Importers are required to give prior notice; federal regulations now allow us to hold imported food seen to be a threat."

Thompson also noted that he feared complacency setting in as far as continuing to "beef up public health infrastructure."

He recalled testifying on Capitol Hill one afternoon in 2001 before 9/11 about the neglect of the nation's public health infrastructure, a neglect that was "leaving us vulnerable to attack."

Thompson described that much to his chagrin, after the Hill meeting, "the media only wanted to know my views on stem cell research. I felt that I had failed in my mission."

"It was a tough sale back in those days" – trying to get a commitment of billions of dollars for protection against plague, smallpox, and anthrax," Thompson recalled.

"Unfortunately, Congress rarely acts before a true crisis is visited upon the country," Thompson lamented.

"When the first responders acted [on 9/11] we saw – true heroes, but we also saw limits. We had all let our public health systems wither on the vine. We did not believe the nation was vulnerable – so we didn't fully arm our first responders."

To this day, Thompson still wonders, "What really happened to the Russian stockpile of smallpox?"

Such wonders aside, Thompson feels better about the $4 billion in HHS state grants that has gone out to the field since 9/11. "The states are better prepared for an emergency."

Thompson noted that some (including the 9/11 Commission) have suggested that we should not treat everyone equally as bio-terror targets – certainly NYC and Washington would be preferred targets for terrorists.

"I don't disagree with these folks," Thompson opined. "But we don't want a free ride in the rest of the country," recalling that, although Washington and NYC were wrapped up in the fall, 2001 anthrax attacks, the first case of anthrax poisoning occurred in Florida.

Thomson sung the praises of an automated system, called "BioSense," a mechanism for detecting signs of bio-terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks by monitoring health data.

"The BioSense program monitors everything. We can have a pharmacy suddenly selling a lot of stomach medicine. This may be a signal of the poisoning of the food supply," Thompson said.

"But we must do more," Thompson qualified. "We are still examining way too little of the food. We must make the necessary investments. We want to double the inspection efforts."

"We are a nation at war. We have come a long way, but we must never become complacent and satisfied. There are still many gaps in our system. We can handle a small pox and anthrax attack, but what would happen if the Asian flu turned into a pandemic? There are only 105,000 respirators on hand, a 30-day supply of masks..."

Thompson had good words for the research front, noting "remarkable headway," led by the $5.6 billion BioShield program, where the government works with the private sector on tactics to counteract chemical, biological and radiological threats. "The government is investing in vaccines and countermeasures."

"SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) was an important test case," Thompson noted. "We passed with flying colors. America responded with clear message and resolve. There were no SARS deaths in U.S."

GOVSEC and its two co-located conferences, U.S. LAW, the U.S. Law Enforcement Conference and Exposition and READY, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Conference and Exposition, were jointly held May 25-26, 2005.

The three conferences provided a forum for the professionals to work together to implement the Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System.

Thompson took time in his address to thank the many first responders in the audience.

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Although he admits that food is definitely safer these post-9/11 days of enhanced vigilance, he voiced concern to the audience of security hardware vendors and first responders that, although the Pure Food and Drug Administration has 80 percent of responsibility for...
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2005-00-26
Thursday, 26 May 2005 12:00 AM
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