Funding Still Questionable for Food Safety Bill

Dollars may be in short supply as leadership changes in House.

Published on: Jan 5, 2011

Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the historic food-safety bill.  But now it's time to pay for it so the coalition of food-industry, public-interest and consumer groups that used a public-health message to win its passage must now make an argument for its funding. Funding for the law is in question as Republicans assume control of the House and pledge to shrink not expand the federal bureaucracy.

Even with tight money, Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs at the Pew Health Group, says this is money extremely well spent to save money over the long run. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the food-safety law would cost about $1.4 billion in its first five years, including the cost of hiring an estimated 2,000 additional food inspectors.

A study released last year by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University estimated that food-borne illnesses cost the country $152 billion a year in medical costs, lost productivity and other expenses, not including costs to the food industry incurred when a product is recalled. Still, Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, says the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country does not justify the cost of the new law.

The overhaul is designed to shift the mission of the FDA from reacting to tainted food after an illness occurs to preventing outbreaks in the first place. It requires manufacturers and farmers to develop strategies to prevent contamination, then continually test to make sure they work. The legislation also gives the FDA the authority to recall food; currently, it must rely on food companies to pull products voluntarily from the shelves.

Also, the law gives FDA access to internal records at farms and food-production facilities and it calls for stepped-up inspections of farms and food processing operations, requiring the FDA to visit "high risk" facilities, those where contamination is likely to occur, once every five years initially and then once every three. According to the Government Accountability Office, the FDA has been inspecting food facilities about once every 10 years. 

Also, under the law, importers would be required for the first time to verify that products and ingredients from overseas meet U.S. safety standards. The measure will affect about 80% of the food supply that is regulated by the FDA. It will not affect meat, poultry and some egg products, which are overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson says his organization is happy with the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act into law.

"This legislation will help to ensure that our food system is safe and can adapt to challenges of a rapidly changing marketplace," Johnson said. "The law prioritizes inspections and focuses resources on the high-risk products and facilities."

It's been 70 years since government has updated food safety legislation. Johnson calls it a historic bill that expands the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to inspect the nation's food supply. Johnson points out that this new authority will allow the agency to be more proactive in heading off potential problems.