Backers of food-safety law now push for funding

February 25, 2011

With President Obama slated to sign historic food-safety legislation into law Tuesday, the coalition of food-industry, public-interest and consumer groups that used a public-health message to win its passage is now making an argument for its funding.

Funding for the law, the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety system since the Great Depression, is in question as Republicans assume control of the House and pledge to shrink — not expand — the federal bureaucracy.

“This is money extremely well spent to save money over the long run,” said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the Pew Health Group, in a conference call with reporters Monday. “We will vigorously be making that case to Congress.”

Olson pointed to a study released last year by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University in which Robert L. Scharff, a former economist at the Food and Drug Administration, estimated that food-borne illnesses cost the country $152 billion a year in medical costs, lost productivity and other expenses. That figure does not include costs to the food industry incurred when a product is recalled.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the food-safety law would cost about $1.4 billion in its first five years, including the cost of hiring an estimated 2,000 additional food inspectors.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, has said that the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country does not justify the cost of the new law.

During the conference call with reporters, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg declined to say how much of the new law can be implement if the FDA does not receive additional money from Congress.

“Some of the key elements of this bill need to be adopted no matter what,” Hamburg said.

The overhaul is designed to shift the mission of the FDA from reacting to tainted food after an illness occurs to preventing outbreaks in the first place.

It requires manufacturers and farmers to develop strategies to prevent contamination, then continually test to make sure they work. The legislation also gives the FDA the authority to recall food; currently, it must rely on food companies to pull products voluntarily from the shelves. The law also gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food-production facilities.

Under the law, importers would be required for the first time to verify that products and ingredients from overseas meet U.S. safety standards.

The legislation calls for stepped-up inspections of farms and food processing operations, requiring the FDA to visit “high risk” facilities — those where contamination is likely to occur — once every five years initially and then once every three. According to the Government Accountability Office, the FDA has been inspecting food facilities about once every 10 years on average.

The new legislation comes after a series of national outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to foods ranging from spinach to peanuts to cookie dough.

The measure will affect about 80 percent of the food supply that is regulated by the FDA. It will not affect meat, poultry and some egg products, which are overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

laytonl@washpost.com

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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