(July 3, 5:24 p.m.) Produce industry leaders responded favorably to a federal task force’s recommendations for improved import food safety, including more inspections in domestic fields and at border points of entry, and increased personnel.

The Interagency Working Group on Import Food Safety, appointed by President George W. Bush last summer and headed by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, in late June and early July introduced plans designed to keep U.S. food supplies safe.

HHS’s report, “Import Safety — Action Plan Update,” released June 30, and the Food and Drug Administration’s “Food Protection Progress Report,” released July 1, highlighted steps taken to prevent, intervene and respond to food safety concerns.

Among other recommendations, the FDA said it has started a rapid detection method for identifying E. coli and salmonella. FDA officials are also exploring current third-party certification programs, and is working with industry officials to identify best practices for traceability.

The FDA is seeking funding to start state rapid response teams to investigate foodborne illness outbreaks and to conduct tracebacks of implicated foods.

Finishing a three-year plan increasing state inspections, the FDA plans to hire 130 additional workers to inspect and sample food in fields. In fiscal year 2009, the FDA plans to increase its state contract food inspections by 327 more than 2008. During the same timeframe, the FDA also plans to conduct 20,000 more food import field inspections above 2008 performance goals.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said the industry should benefit from faster and additional inspections and tests.

“There’s a lot here about testing and additional inspectors,” Means said. “PMA has always maintained that FDA needs additional resources to do its work, and FDA has important work to do. We support efforts to get FDA those additional resources that can be used for processes such as new testing methods for testing and inspections, and for the inspectors themselves. A lot is expected of FDA and the FDA needs the resources so it can fulfill those obligations.”

In the prevention arena, the FDA report cites the agency’s collaboration with state and industry people in its multiyear tomato safety initiative, begun this spring in Virginia and Florida. The FDA states it has examined grower practices that concentrate on factors that are believed to be associated with salmonella infection.

Means said the industry has expertise it can provide and that the industry needs to hear what the initiative has found so the industry and government can improve its practices.

“We are eager to see the results of that especially given what we’re going through now,” she said. “These food safety issues are things government and industry must partner on. Perhaps we can prevent something like this from happening again.”

In the revised HHS report, the agency cited as accomplishments meetings between U.S. and Central American officials discussing ways to ensure the safety of foods moving between the countries. The U.S. has also had similar talks with leaders of China, Vietnam and India.

Means said agencies are making a lot of effort focusing on China and India, as well as Central American countries. While China and India aren’t yet large produce exporters to the U.S., they remain potential partners, she said.