Groups Make Plea for Food Safety

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WASHINGTON: Consumer advocates made a plea for President Clinton to create a single federal food-safety agency to prevent widespread poisoning episodes. 151 schoolchildren in Michigan were diagnosed with Hepatitis A this week after eating contaminated strawberries. The main critique of the current food screening system was that underfunded programs at the Food and Drug Administration, Agriculture Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention normally recall contaminated food after people become ill and do almost nothing to prevent harm. "The bugs are getting ahead of us here and we need to catch up," said Caroline Smith De Waal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Dr. David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed improvements in surveillance, technology, inspections and response are necessary. "We do have to tighten up in every way," he said during a CNN interview. According to White House press secretary Mike McCurry, President Clinton was concerned about the outbreak but believed the departments acted swiftly and competently. Hoping to prevent future illnesses, Clinton asked Congress for an additional $43 million to help agencies involved in food screening to work more effectively together. Government officials believe the contaminated berries were grown in Mexico last spring. About half went to school lunch programs in Arizona, California, Iowa, Tennessee, Michigan and Georgia. But in what could turn into a major bombshell, the other half was reportedly sold commercially. The FDA cautioned, however, that most of these strawberries were most likely heated to make food such as jam and therefore were no longer dangerous. No states other than Michigan have reported illnesses.