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Bush not alarmed by warning on food supply

WASHINGTON -- President Bush expressed no alarm yesterday about a warning from his outgoing top health official that the US food supply is vulnerable to terror attacks but would not deny the assessment and assert that the nation's food is safe.

Bush was questioned, after an Oval Office meeting with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, about comments by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson about the vulnerability of the US food supply. Thompson spoke Friday as he announced his coming departure from the Bush administration.

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

Thompson had said he worries "every single night" about a possible terror attack on the food supply, and despite dramatic increases in inspections of food imports, only "a very minute amount" of food is tested at ports and airports.

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," Thompson said. "We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that."

Thompson was the latest of eight members to quit Bush's 15-member Cabinet as the president moves into a second term.

Bush himself decided that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would not go, ignoring criticism about Rumsfeld's handling of Iraq and giving the secretary a strong vote of confidence to remain at the Pentagon. That decision, sealed Monday in an Oval Office meeting with Bush but not announced until Friday, settles one of the last major questions about who in the Cabinet stays.

Besides the eight members whose departures have been announced, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow has not received a public endorsement of continued service, even though White House officials have described him as a valuable member of Bush's economic team.

Snow, who has been in the job less than two years, declined in an appearance Friday on CNBC to reveal whether he has submitted or offered to submit his resignation.

Rumsfeld's tenure has been marked by unanticipated postwar violence in Iraq and more than 1,250 US deaths, as well as enormous increases in spending on the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Despite controversies, Rumsfeld has kept Bush's confidence. Rumsfeld also has a long history of influential support from Vice President Dick Cheney from their days together in the Ford administration in the mid-1970s.

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