Another day, another food safety scandal – so where’s the cash?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Safety modernization act, Foodborne illness, Food safety, Food

Another day, another food safety scandal – so where’s the cash?
Dilly-dallying over whether to dish up an extra $1.4bn over five years to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act is not only scandalous – it’s also false economy.

When it was signed into law in January, the Food Safety Modernization Act was hailed as the biggest overhaul of the US food supply in more than 70 years – but as another foodborne illness outbreak lands in the record books, the FDA is still waiting for the funding required to implement the law.

The ongoing listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes gained the dubious distinction last week of becoming the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in US history. At the time of writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed 29 deaths as a result of the outbreak, and one miscarriage.

So, nearly a year after the Food Safety Modernization Act became law – after more than a year and a half of tense debate, trade-offs and compromises – it is incredible that many still aim to prevent greater oversight of our food supply on financial grounds.

Not only is it irresponsible, it’s also built on the fundamentally flawed and short-sighted notion that refusing $1.4bn of funding over five years saves money. Foodborne illness is estimated​ to cost the United States $152bn each year, so preventing just one percent of foodborne illnesses would comfortably pay for the extra inspectors and more frequent inspections the law was intended to provide.

But despite broad, bipartisan support, FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg was still pleading last month​ for funding, telling delegates at the 34th annual National Food Policy Conference in Washington, “We understand that these are times of fiscal constraints, and we’re committed to doing our job by allocating our resources based on risks and priorities. But we certainly can’t do everything we need to do—not without a significant infusion of financial resources.”

It’s time for a reality check.

Every time there is a deadly foodborne illness outbreak, people call for change – and with the clarity of hindsight, most of those calls are for preventive measures. It was a previous deadly outbreak – salmonella in peanut products, which killed nine from late 2008 to early 2009 – that sparked the new food safety law, as people questioned the FDA’s effectiveness to prevent foodborne illness, rather than just react once foods were found to be contaminated.

The Food Safety Modernization Act was designed to allow the FDA to shift its focus from reaction to prevention, a change that FDA deputy commissioner for foods Michael Taylor has said​ “may seem obvious” in hindsight.

Right now, the funding to implement the law hangs in the balance. The House of Representatives passed a bill along party lines in June that would cut the FDA’s budget by $285m. Last week, the Senate’s fiscal 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill passed with a 69-30 bipartisan vote, and would increase FDA funding by $50m.

However, it doesn’t matter how many people from across the political spectrum agreed that the FDA needed greater authority, and food production facilities needed greater oversight. Without the funding necessary to do the job, the law is just another piece of politicking.

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4 comments

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FDA is not on the farm or the slaughterhouse

Posted by Loren,

Responding to Jennifer, FDA has no regulatory power to prevent spraying of manure onto crops, nor in the treatment of downer or other cattle in slaughter facilities (USDA), nor in restaurants or grocery stores (state and local health departments).

Unsafe food from smaller food purveyors results in smaller outbreaks because fewer people eat that product, not because small=safe.

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Let's fix the REAL problems

Posted by Jennifer Christiano,

Do you think that if the FDA were a bit less busy raiding Amish farmers and tiny private cow cooperatives, they might be able, with their current budget, to spot and fund the prosecution of bigger problems such as, oh, I don't know, the deliberate spraying of contaminated manure water from intensive feedlot operations directly onto thousands of acres of edible crops? Or the continued pushing, pulling, shocking, beating, dragging and forklifing of "downer" cattle and hogs into slaughter lines and marking the meat as "fit for human consumption"? Or the allowing of many "ethinc" restaurants, grocery stores and poultry markets to engage in clearly unsafe practices imported from parts of the world where standards are much lower? Naw - let's make little Farmer Joe spend $6,000 per year to produce 13 pounds of paperwork which "proves" that the apples from his backyard orchard aren't going to poison all the local children on Halloween, instead.

This is not to say that "small" and "local" are automatically synonymous with good. The fact is that Mom and Pop aren't always clean and better. Size and location don't always correlate exactly with upstanding behavior. However, in the grand scheme of things, the reality is that we're at much lower risk purchasing from small outfits that operate under a self-imposed ethic of intensive care for their land, products and consumers, than we are buying from industrial-scale operators who look at biology as purely a matter of business. In the end, it doesn't matter how much money we give the FDA for food "safety", as long as it remains politically dangerous for them to fix the REAL problems in our system.

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what's stopping them now?

Posted by Scotty,

How does doing the right thing become an issue over more money? If current practices are insufficient then they should rationalize existing practices or delegate to the private sector and start serving the public immediately.

Better yet, we, as consumers, should start deconstructing this mess of a food system we've been given. Start buying only local and seasonal foods. Give the business to a local farmer, rancher or dairyman. The money stays in the community and you're getting healthier and more nutritious food. Everything in the current food system is effectively dead by the time it reaches the store shelves, with 1500 miles of transportation, irradiation, gassing and whatnot to preserve the appearance of freshness on two week old food.

Food safety is a consumer responsibility. Clearly, the government, with several multi-million unit food recalls, they are unable to guarantee anything except: prices will go up.

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