In the shadow of Sept. 11, the question was bound to be asked: who is ensuring the safety of the nation’s food? The answer is 12 agencies under both USDA and FDA are using 35 laws while guard-dogging the produce.

Further, there are only 175 inspectors covering 300 U.S. ports of entry ﷓ far too few to check all imported food items. In a recent report, the General Accounting Office (GAO) says barely 2 percent of imports are inspected. The few inspections that do take place, says the report, are “inconsistent and unreliable.”

In numerous reports stretching back decades, the GAO has repeatedly warned that despite spending billions of dollars on food safety, America is woefully unprepared for a looming crisis.

If someone deliberately plants a hideous disease in food destined for U.S. tables, it won’t just be consumers who suffer. Processors, retailers, marketers and markets would undoubtedly be hard hit.

Even without terrorism, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta says despite spending $1 billion annually to prevent it, some 325,000 Americans are hospitalized and another 5,200 die yearly as a result of food contamination.

For these reasons, the current bulky ﷓ yet undermanned ﷓ system is not acceptable, say several politicians currently pushing bioterrorism legislation. Representatives Marion Berry, D-Ark., and Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, along with Senators Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., have introduced bills asking for a solid, streamlined infrastructure to coordinate federal, state and local response efforts. The bills, claim their authors, take into account not only food safety but also investments in public health systems and pharmaceutical stockpiles.

“Since the events of Sept. 11th, we have learned that bioterrorism represents a severe threat to our national security and domestic tranquility,” Berry said. “This legislation comprehensively addresses that threat and ensures we are prepared as a nation to respond.”

The Berry-Ganske Bioterrorism Preparedness Act (H.R. 3310) calls for $3.2 billion to finance the comprehensive effort.

If passed, what would the legislation mean? The act would mean far more qualified personnel ﷓including food inspectors and lab technicians ﷓ on the look-out, a far better ability to track food, and grants for vaccine development.

“The Bush Administration has indicated its support of the legislation, and many lawmakers from both parties have signed on as co-sponsors,” Berry said. “Everyone agrees that this nation needs to prepare for the bioterrorism threat, and this bill presents the best way to accomplish that.”

E-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com