A Food Fight In the Budget Debate

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One of the most overlooked rifts in Washington’s budget debate is the escalating food fight. In the last two years, the U.S. has endured everything from salmonella-contaminated tomatoes to Chinese milk laced with melamine, a potentially lethal ingredient used to make plastic. House Republicans, in their sweep to enact billions in cuts to federal spending, are now looking to trim the fat at food safety agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.

Republicans have proposed reducing the FDA and USDA’s combined budgets by $4.8 billion, 22% below what the President’s 2011 budget requested. The Democratic-led Senate, meanwhile, has moved to cut those agencies’ budgets by $1.1 billion, or 5% below the requested amount. Food safety advocates warn that if the FDA’s funding were dialed back to 2008 levels, the consequences could be severe: Hundreds of FDA inspectors would be laid-off, they say, preventing the surveillance of some 7,000 food facilities. The USDA’s meat inspectors could be furloughed, prompting hundreds of plants across the country to close because federal agents must be present during operating hours. That in turn could shrink the country’s meat supply and send prices soaring.

The debate comes barely two months after President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law. If fully enacted, that initiative would trigger the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in nearly three-quarters of a century. The law basically directs the FDA, which regulates about 80% of what we eat, to preempt, rather than react to, food-borne illness outbreaks. That’s no small matter: Nearly one in six Americans – 48 million people – contract illnesses like salmonella each year. Experts say such illnesses cost consumers and businesses $152 billion annually. Fortifying the FDA’s safety efforts with $1.4 billion in the coming years is a “bargain,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat and one of Congress’s chief food safety advocates.

Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican congressman from Georgia, one of the nation’s top chicken producers, sees things differently. The FDA doesn’t need $1.4 billion to implement the new food safety law, he argues, because food-borne illnesses are relatively rare. The system works. Case closed. “Money is scarce, and we’ll be looking at everything closer,” he says.

The issue of how to fund food safety will take center stage on Friday, when the FDA’s commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, is scheduled to testify before a House subcommittee. Food safety advocates are preparing for battle, especially on the current fiscal year’s budget, because that will set the tone for how the new safety law will be handled. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group, is issuing a simple warning. After the next outbreak of contaminated tomatoes or peppers sickens hundreds of Americans, she says, “The Republicans will be left holding the bag.”