Health

How Congress Is Putting Our Food Supply At Risk

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in 2009 during a news conference regarding the peanut butter salmonella outbreak and the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Five years after the passage of sweeping food safety legislation that gave the Food and Drug Administration power to prevent future outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, lawmakers haven’t fulfilled their obligations in fully funding the programs that would realize the goals of the law.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the FDA mandatory recall authority along with other expanded regulatory powers, needed a total of $580 million to between since 2011 to be effective, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Congress, however, has doled out less than half that amount, even with some provisions set to go into effect this year.

Agency officials said the budget shortfall undermines their efforts to significantly improve the food safety system that has failed to prevent nearly 48 million foodborne illnesses annually, nearly 3,000 of which result in death. A report released by a trio of federal agencies in February confirmed that bacteria like E.coli, campylobacter, listeria, and salmonella are found in common food like beef, chicken, dairy, vegetables, and fruit.

Lax regulation on the part of the FDA has brought forth undesirable consequences. In 2009, for instance, the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped its salmonella-tainted products around the country and sent customers test results from clean batches under the agency’s radar. The act of deception caused more than 700 illnesses in 46 states, the largest food recall in U.S. history, and the first ever criminal trial of a food manufacturer.

Even with the federal government’s attempts to reduce instances of food poisoning, the presence of some pathogens has increased in recent years, due in part to what critics describe as an unreliable inspection process. That’s why there’s a growing consensus among leaders that quality of the nation’s food sources depends on Congress’ next moves.

“I don’t think it’s too much to say that the success” of the overhaul “is on the line,” Michael R. Taylor, the deputy FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, told the New York Times. “We have good plans for moving forward. The problem is we don’t have the money.”

Without substantial funds, the FDA hasn’t been able to modernize its inspection process and retain nearly 2,000 inspectors and other staff members crucial to its mission. The federal agency has also had difficulty overseeing food imports and providing guidance to state inspection groups. A recent GAO report found that the government agency fell short in its goal to inspect at least 4,800 facilities by 2014, only carrying out its mission in less than a third.

Attempts to increase funding haven’t been fruitful. Food industry lobbyists successfully killed five budget proposals that would have imposed user fees on the members of the food industry to help fund the Food Safety Modernization Act. Rep Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), one of the lawmakers who wrote the law, asked administration officials to request the funding through a budget appropriation in a letter last year.

The FDA recently asked Congress to allocate $109.5 million for the upcoming year — nearly $80 million more than last year’s amount, but half of what will help the agency meet its food safety modernization goals. It remains to be seen, however, if a Republican-controlled legislature will fulfill the request. But DeLauro says GOP lawmakers have no choice. “If we keep shortchanging the FDA, it will continue to cost us billions of dollars a year to deal with food-borne illness,” DeLauro, a member of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency’s funding, told the New York Times.

Food safety experts say that even with the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a food inspection system that’s governed by 30 laws and maintained by more than a dozen government agencies cannot effectively inspect domestic products and imports reaching U.S. shores. Agencies often overlap in their duties and duplicate inspection and training activities that slow down the inspection process and cost taxpayers at least $14 million annually.

The Obama administration has attempted to improve the system in a 2016 budget proposal that, if approved, would pave the way for a consolidation of 15 federal food regulatory agencies that would set food safety standards, streamline the food inspection process, and better enable officials to hold manufacturers accountable. The entity, named the Food Safety Administration, would be housed under the Department of Health and Human Services. DeLauro and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced similar legislation in January that would make the singular food safety agency independent of any federal department.