Last year, a bi-partisan majority in Congress approved a new food safety law, the first significant upgrade of the nation’s food safety system since 1938. The bill was so non-controversial that it was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate. But House Republicans have been threatening to defund the new law through the appropriations process.
Following through on that threat, House Republicans approved a bill yesterday that would cut $87 million from the Food and Drug Administration, as well as $35 million from the USDA’s food safety and inspection service. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) explained that the House GOP is okay cutting food safety funding because the food industry “self-polices”:
“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.”
Just this week, four people, including two children, were sickened by E. Coli in Washington state. But even without some of the high-profile food recalls of last year — including those of salmonella-contaminated eggs and E. coli-contaminated spinach — there is a significant public health justification for upgrading the nation’s food safety system. Currently, 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 new food safety 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. At the moment, just one percent of imported food coming to U.S. ports is inspected.
Finally, the bill will actually save taxpayers money in the long-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.