"We believe there is reason to doubt our ability to detect and fully respond to an organized bioterrorist attack," said Robert Robinson of the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Thursday that her department's inspectors were on alert but disagreed that the government safety system was a problem.
"Everybody, whether it's in government, the private sector or consumers, wants a safe food supply," she said.
Food inspection programs are divided between the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. FDA, which is responsible for safeguarding nearly all foods other than meat and poultry, has 750 inspectors to check 55,000 food plants. USDA has 10 times as many inspectors for 6,000 facilities.
GAO has pressed Congress for years to consolidate inspection programs into one agency, and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 make it more imperative, Robinson told the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Wednesday.
"Maybe the events of Sept. 11 will give us some impetus to change," said Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who has long advocated the creation of a single food agency, an idea studied but dropped by the Clinton administration.
Thousands of food processors nationwide lack proper security, and few test their finished products for contaminants, said Peter Chalk, a policy analyst with the RAND think tank.
Robinson said the Agriculture Department has been left out of the administration's bioterrorism planning.
USDA and FDA officials said that they are coordinating their efforts to prevent or deal with an attack.
"We're in a new day. We're facing threats we never thought we would have to be facing," said Elsa Murano, USDA's new undersecretary for food safety.
She said she would be willing to discuss reorganizing food safety programs. But neither Veneman nor Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who oversees the FDA, support the idea.
Food could be used to spread a biological agent, said Bernard Schwetz, FDA's acting principal deputy commissioner. Such an attack would "reach a large number of people relatively quickly through a means they wouldn't expect to be a problem," he said.
The food industry says it is prepared to deal with a terrorist attack.
"We've got a history of working in the areas of product tampering and prevention," said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "We know what the critical control points are."
The group opposes consolidation of food safety programs but said FDA needs more money to expand its staff.
There has been only one recorded terrorist attack on the U.S. food supply, in the 1980s when a religious sect contaminated salad bars in Oregon with salmonella bacteria.
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