The United States must tighten its scrutiny of imported food and other products, consumer and business groups said, even if overseas manufacturers adopt rules aimed at safer products.

A Bush administration panel has suggested “the importing community” find ways, from start to finish for a product, to reduce the chance of contamination, the use of dangerous ingredients or shipment of unsafe products. Prevention is a better approach than relying on inspections, the panel says.

Some $2 trillion in imports entered the nation last year and the figure could triple by 2015, says the panel’s report.

President Bush appointed the panel of federal officials following a number of recalls of foreign products from China that include pet food containing melamine, seafood containing banned antibiotics and contaminated toothpaste. A detailed final report is due in November.

At a public hearing on the report, several speakers called for larger funding and more authority for Food and Drug Administration oversight of imports. Some suggested the government accredit private laboratories to help carry the burden of testing imports.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, for example, says FDA should be allowed to write mandatory requirements for foreign companies to follow and it would boost funding for FDA laboratories. GMA spokesman Scott Faber said “inspections alone” will not guarantee import safety.

American companies should be required to follow the same rules as importers, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Performance standards are critical if we are going to solve this problem,” said DeWaal. “This needs to be applied to our own domestic producers as well.”

Gus Schaefer of Underwriters Laboratories, Inc, a private safety certifier, said spot checks of factories and field investigation of complaints were vital to assuring safe products. He also recommended stronger penalties to deter industrial counterfeiting.

During opening remarks for the day-long hearing, FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach said it was “most important to build quality into these products before they ever reach our shores.” (Reuters)