Thompson’s take on bioterrorism

It was the quote heard 'round the world: “I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters recently. Digital Managing Editor Heidi Parsons examines Thompson’s concerns.

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When outgoing Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters on Friday, Dec. 3, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do," he didn’t need any help from E.F. Hutton to get people to listen.

“And we're importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that," Thompson added. He noted that the annual number of inspections of imported food had risen during his tenure to nearly 100,000 from 12,000 four years ago, but "it's still a very minute amount that we're doing." He also said he worries "every single night" about threats to the U.S. food supply and called for better technologies to detect contamination.

Those remarks were not part of Thompson’s resignation letter or his prepared comments. An HHS spokesman told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Katherine Skiba that, “the secretary had not intended to make surprising statements at the news conference, but simply ‘went with the flow,’ offering candid responses to a wide range of questions.” However, some journalists have speculated that Thompson’s remarks were not so offhanded, but were intended to spur others in Washington, D.C. to action.

In Thompson’s home state of Wisconsin, The Capital Times (Madison) ran an editorial applauding his attention-getting comments, suggesting that someone needed to light a fire under the Bush Administration to actively address the issue of protecting our food from bioterrorist attack (see sidebar, below).

Although we may never know what processes were already under way when Thompson made his remarks, it is interesting to note the flurry of regulatory activity that ensued. The following Monday (Dec. 6), the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) published its Final Rule on the Establishment and Maintenance of Records to Enhance the Security of the U.S. Food Supply Under the Bioterrorism Act. The rule requires food makers, handlers, importers and distributors to keep records of their suppliers and customers so that any contamination -- accidental or intentional -- can be traced more readily. Media attention swirled for more than a week thereafter.

The day the Establishment and Maintenance of Records regulation came out, Secretary Thompson told Reuters correspondent Charles Abbott, "I'm still not comfortable and I still think we have a ways to go," regarding food safety. "We've come a long way, but I'm still not satisfied."

Among other things, FDA needs more money from Congress to hire food inspectors and to improve technology, Thompson said. He pointed out that although FDA will inspect nearly 100,000 shipments of food this year versus the 12,000 shipments inspected four years ago, the number of inspectors has remained about the same at approximately 1,500. While laudable, it's also hard to imagine how those inspectors managed to increase their productivity so dramatically in such a brief period.

In addition, while it may seem to Washington outsiders that most federal agencies perennially complain about insufficient funding, Thompson is not the only HHS executive to raise the issue. In his Dec. 1 preface to his agency’s 2005 Program Priorities document, CFSAN Director Robert Brackett explained, “This work plan was developed in recognition of the diminished food safety budget yet still focusing on high priority areas that ensure the safety of our foods.”

Editorial: Thompson's food fight

The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), December 8, 2004

Most Cabinet secretaries quietly slip out of their positions and into the ranks of Washington's professional interest peddlers without anything more than the whimper of a worn-out bureaucrat.

But Wisconsinites could have told the Washington insiders that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson would go out with a bang.

Thompson used his valedictory press conference to speak truths that the rest of the Bush administration and Congress have neglected. And, predictably, he caused some controversy.

The former governor of Wisconsin was asked what worried him most, and he responded by telling the assembled reporters that he worried "every single night" about the safety of the nation's food supply.

In George W. Bush's Washington there is not much talk about protecting the quality and safety of the food supply. But Thompson was expressing a genuine and entirely legitimate concern when he suggested that terrorists could easily tamper with food that is exported from other countries to the U.S. And he should have added that food processed in the United States is also vulnerable.

Despite claims by the administration that it is improving and expanding inspections, the frightening truth is that less than one percent of the food for which the Food and Drug Administration is responsible is actually examined. And those examinations rarely if ever go to the level that would reveal the sort of microbial contamination that poses the most serious threat to human life.

Worse yet, the administration and its allies in Congress continue to work behind the scenes to undermine new country of origin labeling (COOL) rules that would inform consumers where their food is coming from. Republicans in the White House and Congress have tried to block COOL protections because food processing companies - which contribute heavily to the GOP - claim food safety initiatives are too costly.

Thompson is to be commended for breaking the silence and exposing the truth that the nation's food supply is vulnerable. But his comments do raise a question: Why didn't he loudly and aggressively express his concerns when he was in a position to do something about the threat? After all, as head of the Department of Health and Human Services, he has overseen the Food and Drug Administration.

Whether it was Thompson's choice or not, the administration in which he has served for the better part of four years has failed to even begin to adequately address the threats to food safety.

The Bush administration failed to implement country of origin labeling or to develop tougher food safety standards for U.S. processing firms and importers. It backed international trade rules that put corporate profits ahead of public safety. And, as Thompson noted in his press conference, it has not moved quickly enough or aggressively enough to expand food inspection programs.

The concerns expressed by Thompson are real. They should be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not show that seriousness when Thompson was a member of the Cabinet. With Thompson exiting, the administration is unlikely to become more engaged.

Only outside pressure will get this administration to act as Thompson's comments of last week clearly suggest that it should.

Hopefully, after he leaves the administration and joins the ranks of the outsiders, Thompson will keep on talking about the steps that need to be taken to ensure that our food supply is healthy and safe.

To obtain the 6-page document, "Protecting the Food Supply: Fact Sheet on FDA's New Food Bioterrorism Regulation: Establishment and Maintenance of Records," click on "Download Now" below.
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