This week, debate is underway in the U.S. House of Representatives on the yearly agriculture appropriations bill, and, in the name of fiscal responsibility, House Republicans are pushing to drastically slash food safety funding. The proposed cuts would effectively defund last year’s Food Safety Modernization Act.
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In the wake of a spate of dangerous food poisioning outbreaks across the nation over the past few years — including an E. coli outbreak linked to spinach in 2006, a salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter in 2009, and the devastating salmonella outbreak caused by tainted factory farmed eggs in August of 2010 — the U.S. Congress faced great pressure from the public last year to act to prevent future public health disasters by improving federal food safety oversight.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was designed to empower the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct more food safety inspections and to forcibly recall contaminated foods proven to cause a danger to the public. Prior to the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA actually lacked the legal authority to force food recalls, even in cases where contaminated food posed a known and immediate danger.
But the bill currently being debated in Congress proposes an $87 million cut to the Food and Drug Administration’s 2012 budget, and a $35 million cut to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service.
These deep cuts would not only effectively gut the Food Safety Modernization Act before its new food safety protections are even fully implemented– such drastic reductions in funding would in fact prevent the FDA and USDA from even continuing food safety inspections at current levels. The White House predicts that if the budget cuts pass, the FDA and USDA may have to furlough food inspectors.
Food safety advocates are predictably outraged. Erik Olson, the director of food and consumer product safety programs at the Pew Health Group, told the Washington Post, “These cuts could seriously harm our ability to protect the food supply.” Jeff Benedict, author of the book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. coli Outbreak that Changed the Way Americans Eat, says of the proposed funding cuts, “If they do that they will basically cut any chances of the kind of testing that needs to be done on these E. coli pathogens.”
There is one area of the agriculture budget the Republican supporters of this appropriation’s bill have so far refused to cut: the Market Access Program, a $200 million per year program that offers federal grants to corporations and food conglomerates to advertise their wares outside the U.S.
After all, if the U.S. stops regularly inspecting food for safety, corporate food producers may need to spend a lot of advertising cash to convince consumers overseas that American food is safe to eat.
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Image of E. coli bacteria by Mattosaurus, from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.