House Republicans vote to cut funds to implement food safety law

Arguing that the U.S. food supply is 99 percent safe, House Republicans cut millions of dollars Thursday from the Food and Drug Administration’s budget, denying the agency money to implement landmark food safety laws approved by the last Congress.

Saying the cuts were needed to lower the national deficit, the House also reduced funding to the Agriculture Department’s food safety inspection service, which oversees meat, poultry and some egg products. And lawmakers chopped $832 million from an emergency feeding program for poor mothers, infants and children. Hunger groups said that change would deny emergency nutrition to about 325,000 mothers and children.

The House also waded into a controversial issue pending at the FDA, forbidding the agency from approving the sale of genetically engineered salmon, a matter that has triggered an intense debate about the place of biotechnology in the food supply.

No Democrats voted in favor of the agriculture appropriations bill, which passed by a vote of 217 to 203. Nineteen Republicans joined the Democrats in opposition.

The White House opposed many of the cuts, saying they would force the USDA to furlough inspectors at meat and poultry processing plants and leave the FDA unable to meet the requirements of a food safety law passed in December. The legislation, which was the first major change to the nation’s food safety laws since 1938, calls for the FDA to significantly step up scrutiny of domestic and imported food and devise a 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 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 the FDA’s food safety program in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Republican leaders in the House pared back that to $750 million, which is $87 million less than the agency currently is receiving for food safety.

They also shaved $35 million from the USDA’s food safety and inspection service.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the House subcommittee that wrote the agriculture appropriations bill, said the cuts to food safety were justified because the nation’s food supply was “99.99 percent safe.”

“Do we believe that McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Safeway and Kraft Food and any brand name that you think of, that these people aren’t concerned about food safety?” Kingston said on the House floor. “The food supply in America is very safe because the private sector self-polices, because they have the highest motivation. They don’t want to be sued, they don’t want to go broke. They want their customers to be healthy and happy.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from tainted food every year. Of those, about 28,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, the government says.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) tried unsuccessfully to restore some money to FDA by arguing that the agency is overwhelmed by imported foods, inspecting just about 1 percent of the supply after it arrives in U.S. ports.

“China is the Wild West,” Dingell said. “The stuff they are exporting to the U.S., I’m not sure I would feed my hogs. It’s time to stand up and say we’re going to spend what it takes to keep people safe.”

Food safety advocates said they are counting on the Senate to restore the funding for the FDA that the House cut. “Clearly, we still think there’s a serious need for additional resources for FDA,” said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) successfully amended the legislation to prohibit the FDA from approving for sale genetically engineered salmon.

The agency has spent years reviewing an application from a biotechnology company for approval of the fish, which would be the first genetically engineered animal sold as food in the United States.

Creators of the salmon inserted a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon and a gene from an ocean pout into an Atlantic salmon. The result is a salmon that grows at twice the normal rate. Critics have dismissed it as “Frankenfish,” and Young and other lawmakers from coastal states with salmon populations see it as competition that threatens their fishing industries.

“I eat Alaskan wild salmon and I support Alaskan wild salmon, and I will not allow these fake fish to affect our healthy stocks,” Young said.

FDA scientists have said that there are no biologically relevant differences between the engineered fish and conventional counterparts, and that the salmon is unlikely to pose a risk to consumers.

But independent scientists, consumer groups and environmental organizations are concerned about the pending decision and the process that the FDA uses to determine whether the genetically modified fish is safe for human health and the environment.

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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