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Food for Thought from Hong Kong

9:44 AM, Jan 15, 2008 • By JAMES JAY CARAFANO
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Hong Kong
Throughout my 25-year Army career, I usually focused on national security as a "blood-and-bullets" concern. So it feels odd to be spending so much of my time nowadays worrying about food security. But it's just another side of the national security coin. You never know when terrorists might try to slip E. Coli into the spinach.

Now Congress too is starting to pay more attention to the security aspects of food and product safety--thanks in no small measure to a spate of recalls on toys made in China with lead paint and other toxic bits. Hearings will be held soon. And some lawmakers will doubtless use the opportunity to push for more non-tariff trade barriers--proposals based more on promoting protectionism than protecting us.

More trade barriers are a bad solution for making food safe. Hong Kong has a better idea.

Though America imports about $75 billion in fresh produce every year, most of what Americans eat is still grown or raised in America. Not so in Hong Kong. Here they import 95 percent of their food--90 percent of it from China. Yet, they do not have a food security import problem. Why? Because Hong Kong employs a layered system of safety measures from "farm to fork."

Hong Kong focuses its efforts not on companies or countries, but on "high risk" foods--those most likely to carry deadly pathogens or contamination from pesticides. (Example: Because of bird flu, they spend a lot of time worrying about chickens.) They also check at all three links in the food chain--import, wholesale, and retail. It is a system that makes sense, with inspections based on an unbiased, scientific-approach to food security.

But watch out for what Washington does in the wake of the China-toy scandal. Some lawmakers are bound to promote an overkill approach that will involve checking everything, everywhere, every step of the way. It's the kind of woefully inefficient approach Hong Kong has wisely rejected.

Consider Chinese food exports, for example. China has approved 12,700 of its 450,000 food producers for export. Hong Kong accepts the certifications of the Chinese Inspection and Quarantine Agency as all that's needed to OK importation. But FDA bureaucracy builders are making noises indicating that won't be good enough. Rather, they may try to certify all 450,000 themselves. That'll never happen--the FDA would have to cover hundreds of thousands of companies from more than 100 countries.

For its part, Congress is only likely to make things worse--restricting ports that can receive imports; requiring more U.S. certification before countries can send goods here; and imposing more inspection fees. All that would do is drive up food prices without adding much real security. At best the FDA can actually inspect only about 1 percent of the food we import anyway.

A recent Heritage Foundation paper by Danielle Markheim and Caroline Walsh offers much better answers. Their recommendations (e.g., that government work with industry to establish clear, practical, science-based regulations regarding food importation) track well with Hong Kong's proven "farm to fork" strategy.