Food safety advocates decry FDA cuts

Budget cuts proposed by House Republicans to the Food and Drug Administration would undermine the agency’s ability to carry out a historic food-safety law passed by Congress just five months ago, food safety advocates say.

The legislation, passed in December, is the first major change to the nation’s food-safety laws since 1938. It calls for the FDA to significantly step up scrutiny of domestic and imported food and devise a new system aimed at preventing the kind of contamination that sickens one in six Americans every year.

The law, which received bipartisan support, followed years of cutbacks at the FDA and waves of national food-borne illnesses linked to foods as varied as spinach, peanuts and cookie dough.

To carry out the new law, President Obama is seeking $955 million for food safety at the FDA in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Last week, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA pared back that amount to $750 million, which is $87 million less than the figure the agency is currently receiving for food safety.

“This subcommittee has begun making some of the tough choices necessary to right the ship,” said Chairman Jack Kingston, (R-Ga.).The full committee was scheduled to vote on the proposed cuts Tuesday, and the budget proposal was expected to pass.

Food safety advocates said that without additional money — let alone the current funding FDA receives — the agency will not be able to meet many requirements of the new law, including increased inspections of food manufacturing plants, better coordination with state health departments, and developing the capacity to more quickly respond to food-borne illnesses and minimize their impact.

“Why pass (the legislation) if you’re going to turn around and cut FDA’s funding?” said Richard D. Saunders, deputy director of Virginia’s division of animal and food industry services. “FDA has never had enough funding to begin with.”

States have had to reduce food safety inspections and enforcement because of budget pressures and have been counting on new funding at the FDA, Saunders said. The FDA routinely contracts with states to perform inspections on its behalf. Virginia conducts about 400 a year under contract to the FDA, in addition to its own inspections, Saunders said.

The proposed budget cuts would also hinder the FDA’s ability to increase scrutiny of imported foods, according to food safety advocates. The new law requires the FDA to create a system of third-party certifiers to ensure that food coming into the United States meets the same safety standards as food produced domestically. Without additional funding, the FDA cannot create that system, said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety programs at the Pew Health Group, part of a coalition of public health advocates and food makers.

“These cuts could seriously harm our ability to protect the food supply,” said Olson, who is hoping the money will be restored by the Senate, which has not proposed its spending plan.

The House subcommittee also proposed a $35 million cut to the Food Safety Inspection Service at the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and some egg products.

While the subcommittee cut money for food safety, it fully funded a controversial program that promotes American farmers abroad.

The subcommittee maintained the current $200 million in funding for the Market Access Program, which has been criticized in the past by both parties as unnecessary.

Supporters say the program helps American farmers compete globally with foreign producers, many of whom are subsidized by their government. Critics, including President Obama and the Republican Study Committee, say its value is unclear.

The program, managed by the Agriculture Department, awards grants to nonprofit organizations, small businesses and large grower cooperatives, such as Sunkist, Welch’s and Blue Diamond, to promote their agricultural goods in foreign markets.

Last year, for example, the Cotton Council International, which represents the U.S. cotton industry, received $20.3 million through the program to help fund a popular reality television show in India featuring aspiring fashion designers.

 
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