When Feds Put Food Safety On Back Burner

Friday, August 26, 2011

When the federal government skimps on food safety, especially inspections, people can get seriously ill and in some cases, die. That’s why Congress can’t afford to underfund the landmark bipartisan food safety law.

New cases of foodborne illnesses are popping up across the country. A recent New York Times article reported that the Food and Drug Administration, the agency in charge of implementing the law, is short on funds, and the financial situation could worsen if the congressional super committee makes additional budget cuts.

Mike Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told the Times:

“The stark choice is we either find the resources or we forgo implementing this law the way Congress intended. You can’t build something brand-new without the resources to do it.”

It is unsettling news when you think about what is at stake. According to the New England Journal Of Medicine, about 1 in 6 people in the United States get sick each year from food-related illnesses, 128,000 are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die.

The law, which went into effect in January, is designed to help the FDA prevent these types of problems, rather than just react to them. The agency has been tasked to conduct more inspections on food and facilities and increase oversight on imported foods.

But the FDA needs money. The Washington Post reported back in January, “the Congressional Budget Office estimated the law would cost about $1.4 billion in its first five years, including the cost of hiring an estimated 2,000 additional food inspectors.”

In a blog post in January, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg noted:

“Another question people have been asking is “when will the changes happen?” There’s no easy answer to that question. Some of the changes from the law will go into effect immediately, such as the new mandatory recall authority. Other changes will require more time. And some of this simply comes down to budgeting.

The funding we get each year, which affects our staffing and our vital and far-ranging operations, will also affect how this legislation is implemented. For example, the inspection schedule in the legislation would increase the burden on FDA’s inspection functions. Without more funding, we will be challenged to implement the law fully without compromising other key functions.”

At the same time, another program aimed to reduce problems in our produce supply is at risk. The House passed a bill in June that cut funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Microbiological Data Program, which screens fresh produce for disease-causing pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook told the Chicago Tribune:

“Eliminating the (Microbiological Data Program) may serve the interests of agribusiness, but it's a serious disservice to consumers and public health," said Cook. "Since when does it make sense not to check food for potentially deadly pathogens?"

The FDA told the Tribune that the program’s findings have triggered at least 19 produce recalls over the last two years.

EWG brought attention to the news article in its own AG Mag blog post, Protect the Public from Tainted Produce? Outrageous! Spokesman Alex Formuzis pointed out that the produce lobby -- specifically United Fresh Produce Association – had taken aim at the Microbiological Data Program and even boasted on its website that it had "monitored and helped block over 100 legislative proposals on food safety in Congress" in the past two years. At last check, that page is no longer accessible.

This happens all too often in Washington. A high profile law is passed and when the public turns its attention elsewhere, opponents gut the law by starving the program for funds.  As the food-borne illness outbreaks this summer prove, the public will lose if Congress puts funding for the new food safety law and produce screening programs on the back burner. Deep budget cuts would make it nearly impossible for the government to do its job and protect what we eat. The consequences may be fatal.


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