An ever-changing U.S. consumer who enjoys the convenience of ready-to-eat produce and seasonable fruits during the dead of winter has brought new challenges to food import safety, experts said Oct. 18.

With U.S. food imports set to top more than $2 trillion this year and expected to triple by 2015, a panel on food safety commissioned by President Bush met at Texas A&M University to discuss ways to strengthen the national and global import infrastructure.

Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said the nation's consumer is one who "expects to eat strawberries in February." That has led to more change and complexity among how food is processed and delivered into the U.S. "This nation and the people we serve, and their health that's so critically important, is threatened - not that we haven't been dong a good job," he said. "In fact, we've been doing an incredibly good job. But the world is rapidly changing around us. Although we have been the gold standard (in food safety), we must respond and be prepared for new challenges that are emerging from radical changes."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples told the group "consumers' tastes and preferences are changing.

"They are demanding specialty products from around the world, seasonal products such as fruits and vegetables," Staples said.

The working group, comprised of senior officials from 12 federal departments and agencies, is charged to report an action plan by mid-November.! Additional information on the panel's activities can be found at http://www.importsafety.gov .

The meeting at Texas A&M includes import safety experts from eight universities and five corporations. Issues such as global process control, verification activities, and supply chain management are being discussed throughout the day.

"Texas A&M is a leader in food safety research, and! we&rsqu o;re very honored to be host of this important conference," said Dr. Elsa Murano, vice chancellor and dean for agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M.

A live video stream of the day-long conference is available via a Trans-Texas Videoconference Network Web site. Go to: http://ttvn.tamu.edu/streams and click on Channel 20.