WASHINGTON -- Thousands of customs agents along U.S. borders are taking on the job of food inspectors to more closely monitor food imports for signs of bioterrorism, federal officials said Wednesday.
Deputy Customs Commissioner Douglas Browning said U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration, already has trained 1,600 to 1,800 officers to detect contaminated food products.
Browning and FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan signed an agreement allowing the FDA to commission as many customs officers as necessary to work on behalf of the FDA in checking food shipments.
Browning said the agreement supports their "twin goals of securing the border from terrorists and terrorist weapons while ensuring the movement of legitimate trade."
At least two FDA-trained customs officers are now stationed at most of the 300 major ports of entry around the United States, Browning said. Ultimately, all 18,000 customs officers along the border could be trained, filling in gaps where the FDA lacks inspectors.
Officials could not immediately provide a cost estimate for the program.
The interagency agreement is part of several measures officials are taking in response to bioterrorism legislation passed by Congress last year that directed the government to keep better tabs on food imports.
McClellan said the additional inspectors will help FDA keep up with new rules requiring importers to give regulators two to eight hours notice, depending on the mode of transportation, of a food shipment's arrival.
The new rules also require the registration of food facilities operating in the U.S. market. Around 100,000 firms, mostly foreign, have registered ahead of the Dec. 12 deadline, but officials said enforcement would be flexible at first as firms adapt to the changes.
McClellan said more food inspectors along the border could help ward off naturally occurring diseases, such as the hepatitis outbreak that killed three and sickened hundreds. It has been linked to contaminated green onions from Mexico.