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HHS Secretary Says Major Changes To Import Controls Needed

OPB | Nov. 28, 2007 4:10 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:18 a.m. | Clackamas, OR

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By Kristian Foden-Vencil

The U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Mike Leavitt, was in Oregon Wednesday, to outline new plans for keeping the nation’s food safe.  As Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, he visited Pacific Seafoods in Clackamas to highlight the importance of quality control.


SeafoodIn a cooler the size of a warehouse, workers cut open a large box. Inside is a 120-pound swordfish, packed in ice. At about $10 a pound, it’ll fetch about $1200, retail.

Secretary Leavitt watches as two guys weigh  it and take its temperature. He asks what else they do to make sure the fish is safe for public consumption.

Glenn Kasch: “We want to find out where the country of origin is and where it was processed. This is from Fiji, so he’s going to check the paperwork.”

“…I just go over the number right there. (beep beep) 9 18 27  39.”

Mike Leavitt: “Now this is tracking it from the point of shipping.”

Glenn Kasch: “Right.”

Warehouse manager, Glenn Kasch, says they have to be so careful with seafood that they’ve set up a special system. Sometimes they  can even tell which fish was caught by which boat in which town.

Pacific Seafoods imports about a third of its fish — from as far a field as China, Mexico and Russia.

CEO Tim Horgan says the company has an expert from Oregon State University, who travels overseas to check out those fish — what  their habitat is like; and how they’re processed.

Tim Horgan: “Dr. John Linn basically goes around the world and certifies the supplier. He looks at the water quality, he looks at the feed, he looks at all the critical control points to ensure safe food.”

It’s this kind of attention to detail that Secretary Leavitt came to see. Indeed, standing inside the warehouse he praised Pacific Seafoods and said quality controls like these will become more common overseas.

Mike Leavitt: “Our new strategy is not to simply stand at the border and try to catch things that aren’t safe. It’s to assure that before they get to our border they are safe.”

Leavitt and 12 federal agencies are working on the biggest overhaul of import controls the nation has seen. Over the last week and a half, Leavitt has been traveling the county talking to food suppliers, toy companies and ports about their quality controls.

He says he’s come up with a report that lists 50 changes that need to be made both overseas and in the U.S.

Mike Leavitt: “In some cases the penalties need to be more harsh. In food right now, the maximum penalty is $1.4 million. We want to increase that to $10 million.  There will be places where regulators need more authority. For example, we’re asking the Congress to give the Food and Drug Administration the capacity to have mandatory recalls. But fundamentally, underlying this report, is a new strategy, build quality in every step of the way.”

Leavitt did not use this trip to talk about Oregon’s new memorandum of understanding with China, which was signed last month.

It’s a separate food safety effort in which the state’s agriculture department test foods imported from China. Agency spokesman, Bruce Pokarney, says it’s meant to compliment  federal efforts.

Bruce Pokarney: “We’re not really talking about doing something on a huge, large scale to the extent that the federal government has the resources to do. But those companies that would want that extra certification, that extra check that we can provide, that’s what we are going to provide for those products coming in from China.”

Secretary Leavitt plans to sign a new health and safety agreement with China next week. Agreements with other countries, he says, are in the works.

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