Reacting to a series of imported product recalls this year, the US government’s Import Safety Working Group met in Washington last month to obtain feedback from industry and government officials.

“In order to adapt to a rapidly growing and changing global economy, both the private and the public sector need to continually improve and change with it,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

Leavitt says the global nature of the economy has presented enormous challenges for government agencies charged with ensuring the safety of imported products. For example, the group says that this year alone, more than $2 trillion worth of products are going to be imported into the US from 25,000 importers through 300 ports, land border crossings, postal facilities and other ports of entry.

“In the past two months, working group members have been criss-crossing this country fact-finding. I personally visited more than two dozen cities,” Leavitt said.

The result of all those visits, says Leavitt, are six proposals, which include increased accountability, enforceability and a focus on risks. Leavitt also said enforcement agencies should collaborate more, and businesses need tougher standards in order to produce better quality products.

“We need to create a better system that builds quality into the product from the very start,” Leavitt said.

Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) said he will establish a presidential commission on food safety, as part of the current Farm Bill, which is making its way through Congress. The commission was also part of the 2002 Farm Bill, but Harkin says the commission was never appointed or allowed to meet. He says the Cabinet-level Interagency Working Group, with its sole focus on imports, is not adequate to address the nation’s food safety needs – pointing to the massive Topps Beef hamburger patty recall as evidence for greater focus on the safety of domestic food products.

The Topps recall involved 21.7 million pounds of ground beef products and forced the 67-year-old company to close its Elizabeth, NJ plant and cease all business operations. This was Topps’ first and only recall. The problem was discovered through sampling by the New York State Department of Health in conjunction with CDC.