Funding Shortfall Compromises Food Safety

You have to praise passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2010, the first major overhaul of food safety oversight in 70 years. It gave the FDA additional powers to prevent food-borne illnesses. But you also have to question why Congress still hasn’t appropriated enough money to fulfill the act’s mission.

Within the last couple of weeks, eight people have contracted Listeria from contaminated ice cream. Listeria can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Others might suffer high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, and pregnant women can miscarry or experience a stillbirth
Just last week, 30,000 cases of hummus suspected of being contaminated with Listeria were recalled. Luckily, at this writing, no one has gotten sick.

But what’s the problem with funding food safety?

Last week the New York Times reported that although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that $580 million was required to enable the FDA to do its food safety job between 2011 and 2015, the agency has received less than half that amount.

As the feds prepare this year to issue critical rules under the new law that would require even more funds, the situation grows more concerning.

In an interview with the newspaper, Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael R. Taylor said, “I don’t think it’s too much to say that the success [of the overhaul] is on the line. We have good plans for moving forward. The problem is we don’t have the money.”

About 48 million Americans get sick from a food pathogen every year. And about 128,000 people are hospitalized each year with food-related illnesses, and about 3,000 die.

Some lawmakers say the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), of which the FDA is a part, share some of the blame for insufficient funds because they tried to impose user fees on the food industry to subsidize the law. But the FDA, The Times noted, relies on user fees for lots of programs. Why not this one?

Because industry lobbyists objected, and Congress caved.

The FDA proposed user fees in five consecutive budget requests. Last year, it sought $263 million for the law, $229 million of which would come from fees on food companies.

The FDA got $27.5 million for the law for this fiscal year, and asked Congress for $109.5 million for the next year. The Republican-led Congress likes to cut spending, so it doesn’t look good for the FDA. Even if the agency gets that money, it’s only about half of what the budget office says is necessary, and the cost of addressing food-borne illnesses will continue to be in at least in the millions, and probably the billions.

The FSMA makes food companies responsible for ensuring sure that their products are safe; it doesn’t rely on FDA inspectors, whose numbers are insufficient for the job. As The Times explained, the act demands better record-keeping, contingency plans for handling outbreaks and strategies for preventing the spread of contaminants. Critically, it allows the agency to issue recalls, which it could not do before.

Consumer groups have criticized the Obama administration for dragging its feet in bringing the FSMA to its full powers, and some sued in 2012 to force the FDA to issue its final rules sooner. Settlement of that lawsuit resulted in the agency publishing some of the final regulations later this year.

Taylor, from the FDA, said that his agency could issue some new rules, including those for produce and processed foods, but that lack of funding would undermine its ability to modernize inspection processes, retrain inspectors and other staffers for the new requirements and provide guidance and technical assistance to the states, which conduct inspections under contract with the feds. And you can forget about properly overseeing food imports.

Under the FSMA, the feds are supposed to boost its inspections of foreign food facilities that export to the United States, but the Government Accountability Office found that the FDA had not kept up with the pace of inspections mandated by Congress.

The FDA was supposed to inspect at least 4,800 foreign food facilities in 2014, according to the accountability office, but managed only 1,323.

Tony Corbo, who represents the consumer group Food & Water Watch, told The Times, “If they don’t have the capacity to enforce it, the law is not going to be worth the paper it’s written on.”

But some consumer advocates are optimistic that food safety will be improved despite the funding troubles. According to Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety, “It’s going to be a long fight. But I think we will get there.”

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