(July 25) The Food and Drug Administration is increasing scrutiny of food imports and funding new research the agency hopes will pinpoint food security threats, FDA officials said July 23.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced $5 million in funding to support a new research program to develop technologies to prevent and minimize potential threats to the safety and security of the nation’s food supply.

The money comes from a White House-directed post-Sept. 11 Emergency Response Fund and will be used to develop new prevention technologies and improve the ability to assess foods for contamination with chemical, biological and radiological agents, the FDA said.

What’s more, agency officials said they have responded to the post-Sept. 11 security threat by increasing inspections of imported food by more than fivefold in the past two years.

Gains in staff were made possible by a $96 million increase in the agency’s food-security budget in 2002 and 2003, the FDA said. The additional funds allowed FDA to hire 655 new field personnel that work almost exclusively on food security and food safety; about 300 are involved in investigations at U.S. ports of entry.

The 2004 budget from the Bush administration requests $116 million more to bolster food protection, the FDA said.

While they were talking up the FDA’s commitment to monitor imports, FDA officials acknowledged the food industry has been critical of the prior-notice provision of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.

FDA officials said the final rule on the prior-notice regulation wouldn’t be published until Oct. 12 but suggested the FDA is considering adding more flexibility for food shipments from Mexico and Canada.