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Tommy G. Thompson, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced his resignation from the Bush administration last Friday and said he was amazed that the nation’s food supply had not yet been attacked by terrorists because it would be so easy to do so.

"For the life of me," Thompson said at a press conference, "I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do."

Mr. Thompson said he worried "every single night" about threats to the food supply because, while there has been an increase in inspections, only "a very minute amount" of food is tested at ports and airports. "We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East and it would be easy to tamper with that," he said.

Asked about Thompson’s assertion on Saturday, President Bush said, "We're a large country with all kinds of avenues where somebody can inflict harm. We're doing everything we can to protect the American people. There's a lot of work to be done."

Thompson is the latest of eight members to resign from the cabinet since the President Bush won re-election a month ago.

As questions about the food supply were raised by Thompson, the Bush administration was simultaneously announcing that New York Police Chief Bernie Kerik would be nominated to replace Tom Ridge, who announced his resignation Tuesday from the Department of Homeland Security, as well as lobbying the US Congress to pass a bill that would allow for the nation’s intelligence infrastructure to be overhauled in line with recommendations made by a commission that looked into the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
KC's View:
So who are we to believe? And what exactly are they saying?

When you read President Bush’s comment - "We're a large country with all kinds of avenues where somebody can inflict harm. We're doing everything we can to protect the American people. There's a lot of work to be done.” – it doesn’t exactly sound like he’s quibbling with Thompson’s assessment.

These comments must have terrorists somewhere slapping their heads and wondering why, after all, they hadn’t done a better job targeting the US food supply. And at the same time, these statements must have US consumers wondering if their faith in the US government’s ability to protect them is, after all, misplaced.

It isn’t just terrorism that consumers have to be concerned about. There are calls for specific kinds of labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the Bush administration fights it, saying that such labels would only “scare” consumers. There are laws passed requiring mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), but the food industry resists them saying that the system is too costly and inefficient. (And yet, Thompson specifically worries about food from the Middle East and the government’s inability to check it at the border. Sounds like an endorsement of COOL to us…) But in each case, it seems to us, the argument can be made that the precautions being called for only mandate more data for consumers that will help them be more intelligent (or at least informed) about the buying and eating decisions they make.

When the nation’s newspapers feature the outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services questioning the government’s ability to protect the food supply, you have to figure that consumers are at least going to be concerned…if by nothing else, the mixed messages they’re getting.

The New York Times noted in its coverage that Thompson “said he wished Congress had given him the power to negotiate with drug manufacturers to secure lower prices for Medicare beneficiaries. The White House and Republicans in Congress have insisted that the government should not have that power because it would lead to price controls, reducing the revenues that drug companies need for research.

“Mr. Thompson also said he tended to favor creation of an independent office to monitor the safety of prescription drugs after they are approved for sale to the public. Critics of the Food and Drug Administration have long called for such an office. After initially opposing the idea, Bush administration officials and managers at the F.D.A. have said they will examine any proposals.”

Food and drug retailers – on the front lines, and supposedly advocates for the people who shop their stores – must be both concerned and energized by the mixed messages being sent to consumers…and, quite frankly, to the industry. Tough questions must be asked, and accurate, plausible answers must be demanded.

This is not a political or partisan effort. It is struggle to retain credibility and viability in the eyes of the shoppers who make the industry possible.

And we don’t think this is an overstatement.