Warning: Budget Cuts May Harm Food Safety


by Jerry Hagstrom, DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) — The nation’s food safety inspection programs for meat and poultry at the Agriculture Department may be safe from budget cuts, but similar programs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are vulnerable to cuts that may also endanger food safety, according to three key federal officials.

Food safety is a growing topic as the Food and Drug Administration copes with a listeria outbreak from cantaloupes that has killed 18 people, making the outbreak one of the worst foodborne illnesses since the 1970s in terms of fatalities.

But FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg at a food policy conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America said her agency’s food inspection function, which covers the other 80{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} of the food supply, has “historically” been underfunded and that the agency needs more money to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, a new law that is supposed to make the foods under FDA’s mandate safer.

Although most of the food industry supported the bill, which is now becoming known by the acronym “FSMA” (pronounced “FISMA”), some industry leaders have resisted its new requirements, and the House has been reluctant to give the agency the money it needs to implement it.

“Writing the rule seems like the easy part,” Hamburg said. “We need to be able to invest in compliance,” she said, adding that small businesses need to be trained so they can train their workforce. “We can’t do what we need to do without a significant infusion of resources.”

Carol Tucker Foreman, a distinguished senior fellow at CFA and former USDA official, suggested that the agency needs to impose user fees, but Hamburg declined to state whether the Obama administration would put forward such a proposal. The House-passed food-safety bill initially contained user fees, but they did not survive into the final legislation in the Senate.

The web publication Food Safety News reported Thursday that 24 food-processing and agricultural groups wrote members of the super committee asking to avoid budget cuts to food safety and warning the committee should not impose any new food-safety feeds or taxes on the industry. According to Food Safety News, the letter stated, “Imposing new user fees on food makers is the wrong option for supporting food safety programs as businesses can ill afford new cost burdens, which ultimately would represent a new food safety tax on consumers.”

Hamburg noted she has appointed Kathleen Gensheimer, a physician and former Maine state official, as chief medical director for the agency.

Hamburg also said the agency is still trying to discover the root cause of the listeria in cantaloupe that has become the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in the United States in decades.

Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the conference that there are 41,000 fewer health and food safety officials in state and local governments than two years ago. Food safety coordination among agencies has improved at the federal level, he said, but is difficult with states and localities due to the cutbacks in personnel.

Hamburg also said she is “enormously concerned” about the reduction in personnel at the state and local level.

“These are difficult and challenging times,” she said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he believes the public is so concerned about food safety that he has told Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen that the budget for the Food Safety and Inspection Service is “untouchable.”

“I’m least concerned about the food-safety part than any other part” of the USDA budget, Vilsack said.

He later told reporters that “food safety is in a different world. All the other [USDA] programs are in a competitive” situation.

The House-passed fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill would cut the Food Safety Inspection Service budget by 3.4{fe867fa2be02a5a45e8bbb747b653fe2e9d0331fd056b85cd0c1a3542435a96e} to $972.7 million, according to a Bloomberg report, but the House cut other programs in the bill much more. The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee did not cut the budget for food safety, Bloomberg said. The bill has not come up on the Senate floor yet.

USDA also said recently that the agency is committed to keeping the meat, poultry and egg products it inspects safe despite the budget pressures. Under the 2008 farm bill, the agency is also supposed to take over inspection of farm-raised catfish, but that rule is held up at the Office of Management and Budget.

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.


© Copyright 2011 DTN/The Progressive Farmer, A Telvent Brand. All rights reserved.

Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x