updated 9/18/2007 7:31:53 PM ET 2007-09-18T23:31:53

In a rare move, the grocery industry asked Tuesday for more regulation — to ensure that the imported products they sell meet U.S. safety and quality standards.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association proposal seeks to calm fears about the safety of imported food after a rash of high-profile recalls. It wants the Food and Drug Administration to oversee the program — and have Congress provide the cash-strapped agency the money to do so.

The proposal also would expedite the processing of imports pre-cleared with the FDA, in part by allowing companies to share in confidence test results and other data. That would let the agency focus on products from other sources deemed of higher risk, according to the group. Today, the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of all food imports.

"Because we cannot simply inspect our way to a safer food supply, industry can apply its vast knowledge and practical experience along the entire supply chain to prevent problems before they arise," said Cal Dooley, the president and chief executive of the trade group, whose members include ConAgra Foods Inc., Kraft Foods Inc. and Nestle USA Inc.

Lawmakers and consumer advocates praised the proposal for acknowledging what they characterized as the FDA's inability to adequately police food imports. Drug-laced farmed fish, chemically spiked pet food ingredients and other imports have fanned fears in recent months.

The U.S. is expected to import a record $70 billion in agricultural products for the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, according to an Agriculture Department forecast. That's about double the nearly $36 billion purchased overseas in 1997.

"Today's announcement by the food industry reaffirms that the current system overseeing food imports is not working," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D.-Ill., who's floated a plan that would allow the FDA to collect fees from food-exporting countries and companies to defray the cost of beefed-up inspections and more food-safety research.

The industry proposal also suggests doing more work overseas to ensure exporters understand and can meet U.S. standards. That approach squares with a recent proposal from the working group established by President Bush in July to study import safety.

"When more imports are a part of the food supply, it becomes important to focus on their entire life cycle and not just the condition that they are in when they reach the port," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told a breakfast meeting to mark the 10th anniversary of the Partnership for Food Safety Education. At that same meeting, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., reminded attendees, many of them food industry employees, of their moral obligation to ensure food safety.

"Trade and other issues cannot trump the public health of this nation," said DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Appropriations' agriculture subcommittee.

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