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.