Top U.S. food companies, worried recent import scares may turn away customers, launched a plan on Tuesday to add teeth to existing safety guidelines and increase funding for bare-bones federal regulators.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which includes leading companies like General Mills Inc., Cargill Inc., ConAgra Foods Inc. and Hershey Co., proposed the steps in a bid to ease fears stirred this year by reports of lead-laden toys and chemical-laced seafood and other goods imported into the United States, largely from China.

"Recent events have exposed weaknesses in our nation's food safety net," the group said.

To restore Americans' faith, the firms want to enhance government guidelines on how companies verify the quality of food or inputs they import. Not only would new U.S. Food and Drug Administration precautions become mandatory, but companies would be required to prove their suppliers are complying.

Their plan would also inject money into the FDA, widely seen as underfunded and understaffed. With U.S. food imports growing 15 percent a year, the FDA was able to inspect less than 2 percent of the goods it regulates in 2006.

The blueprint comes as the Bush administration prepares its own set of detailed recommendations, expected in November. Health officials stress it is simply impossible to prevent safety problems through inspections, with $2 trillion worth of goods flowing across the U.S. border a year and growing.


The Grocery Manufacturers also want to see U.S. officials doing more with trading partners, perhaps inspecting foreign plants and helping governments track their own problems.

But the plan does not include more ambitious steps that some critics, like Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, advocate, like a fee on all imports to help fund stepped-up inspections.

Jean Halloran, who follows food safety at the Consumers Union, a watchdog group, says the plan marks "a remarkable shift" for the industry in embracing more strict regulation.

"The attitude in the past" for many industries, she said, "is that no regulation is good regulation."

While Halloran would like to see other steps, like country-of-origin labels on food, she particularly lauded the proposal to double the FDA budget in five years. "Hallelujah! We couldn't agree more," she said.

The food and import safety issue is stirring more interest on Capitol Hill, but it remains to be seen if competing proposals will come together into a viable law any time soon.

"Consumer confidence has declined just as recent E. coli and salmonella outbreaks ... illuminate a food safety system hobbled, in my view, by inadequate authority, a fragmented organizational structure, and insufficient resources," said Rosa DeLauro, one of the most vocal advocates of major change to oversight of domestic and imported food supplies.

"Trade should not trump public health," the Connecticut Democrat said at a news conference highlighting a drive to educate consumers about their own role in food safety.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who is taking part in President George W. Bush's safety panel, said officials must target high-risk areas in the supply chain. But he said, "the final line of defense really is in our kitchens."