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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

The threat to our food

OUTGOING Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was right to raise concerns about the vulnerability of the nation's food supply in this age of terrorism. Unfortunately, President Bush dismissed his eloquent and appropriate plea and offered tepid, we're-doing-what-we-can comments to deflect responsibility from his administration.

The President's breezy lack of concern is unsettling. When Secretary Thompson announced his departure from the Bush Cabinet, he said he worries "every single night" about the possibility of attack on the U.S. food supply. He said he is stunned that terrorists haven't attacked the food supply because doing so wouldn't take very much. Nor would it be hard to tamper with food that comes into the country from the Middle East.

Since 9/11, some improvements have been implemented to lessen the chance of harming Americans' food, but they are not enough. There has been a substantial increase in inspections of food imports. But at ports and airports, only a tiny percentage of food is tested. The Food and Drug Administration has implemented new rules to investigate a bioterror attack on the nation's food, but that has nothing to do with preventing one in the first place.

In light of Mr. Thompson's concerns, Mr. Bush offered Americans no ease whatsoever. Government is doing what it can, he said, although there's still a lot of work to do. "We're a large country, with all kinds of avenues where somebody could inflict harm," Mr. Bush said. Americans already know that. What they want is government assurance that the risk is being minimized.

This tactic of deflecting responsibility and inoculating himself from criticism is a familiar one. It may make a certain amount of political sense, but it fails the leadership test and fails to address the vulnerability of the food supply.

Until the administration makes a serious effort to heed Mr. Thompson's warning, maybe the rest of us should be up nights worrying, too.

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