Rep. Kingston Threatens To Defund Food Safety Law That Will Protect The Public And Save Taxpayers Money

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA)

Today, President Obama is expected to sign into law a food safety bill that significantly upgrades the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to prevent and respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent last month, and the House passed it on a 215-144 vote, with ten Republicans joining all but eight Democrats in affirming the measure.

Despite this bipartisan support, the incoming Republican leadership in the House is threatening to defund the bill, the implementation of which requires $1.4 billion over the next five years, mostly to hire new food inspectors. The bill is officially deficit neutral, according to the Congressional Budget Office, as it raises fees to offset its cost, but Congressional appropriators still need to okay the FDA to spend the money.

And Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), the incoming chairman of the appropriations subcommittee charged with the FDA budget, seems disinclined to do so:

“There’s a high possibility of trimming this whole package back,” Kingston said yesterday in a telephone interview. “While it’s a great re-election tool to terrify people into thinking that the food they’re eating is unsafe and unsanitary, and if not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians we’d be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a darn good job.”

Even without some of the high-profile food recalls of last year — including of salmonella-contaminated eggs and E. coli-contaminated spinach — there is a significant public health justification for upgrading the nation’s food safety system.

At the moment, one out of six Americans suffers from a foodborne illness every year, with 128,000 of those resulting in hospitalization. Ultimately, 3,000 people die from foodborne illness each year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The law gives the FDA the ability to force recalls, which it currently is barred from doing, and do more to inspect food coming into the country.

Aside from the public health benefits, the bill will actually save taxpayers money in the long-run (while costing them nothing in the short-run). “The costs of failing to overhaul the food-safety system would ultimately exceed the legislation’s implementation costs,” said Erik Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Health Group. According to Georgetown University’s Produce Safety Project, foodborne illness costs the U.S. $152 billion annually.