Online commentary: By cutting funding, House Republicans put food safety at risk

June 26, 2011

From:  The Detroit Free Press

John Dingell, a Democrat from Dearborn, represents the state’s 15th U.S. House District.

Recently I introduced an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill to restore half of the $87 million cut to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food safety regulatory activities, but regrettably it was voted down. I am outraged that while we are in the midst of one of the worst recorded food-poisoning outbreaks in history that the House GOP would not fund the very law designed to ensure the safety of our nation’s food. The audacity and arrogance to play political games with the safety of our food sickens me.

The safety and goodness of our food is something our federal government is responsible to secure through careful regulations and oversight. While our efforts are not perfect, these regulations and oversight actively keep our food safe. Still, as we watch a global E. coli outbreak, it turns my stomach to also watch House Republicans vote to pass the Agriculture Appropriations bill with budget cuts that dramatically impede the FDA’s ability to act.

Last year the House overwhelmingly passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act (FSEA), landmark reform I authored. This bipartisan legislation had the support of consumer groups, food safety groups and industry. FDA’s authority to prevent food-borne illnesses from occurring required food facilities to have safety plans to identify and mitigate risks, increased the inspection frequency of food facilities here and abroad, expanded trace back capabilities in the instance of an outbreak, and strong, flexible enforcement tools — including mandatory recall — to protect American consumers. This bill did not cost the government money or add to the deficit, providing FDA with a reliable, steady source of funding through an annual $500 registration fee paid by all food facilities in the United States and abroad.

The fee for the food safety authority didn’t survive Senate debate and unfortunately now we are witnessing a perfect storm. FDA has the responsibility and tools to prevent and detect food-borne illnesses without the money to back it up. Year after year devastating outbreaks — E. coli in peppers, Salmonella in peanuts, melamine in milk— sicken or kill innocent people. And with each incident members of Congress and the American people ask “Where was FDA?”

Instead, we should ask “Where is Congress?” or more importantly, “Congress, where is the money?”. A fee system to pay for food-safety activities is not a radical concept. The drug safety industry pays user fees dedicated to speeding the review of new drug applications and improving drug safety. Similarly the medical device industry pays user fees dedicated to the review of marketing applications and ensuring device safety. It works well for all concerned. The amount of user fees collected has increased each year since collection was first authorized. These fees guarantee FDA a dedicated source of funding for activities dedicated for their review process and the safety of consumers that is not subject political posturing and budget constraints.

We must reduce our budget deficit and all options must be considered. However, at a time when there is a destructive global food poisoning outbreak, it is indefensible that we would cut funding from the agency whose responsibility it is to prevent such food-borne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that food-borne disease causes 48 million Americans fall sick each year, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. These statistics are worse than unacceptable. They reveal problems that scream to be dealt with, so it astonishes me that House Republicans would do just the opposite by slashing funds for preventative detection programs which implement better oversight and fight the problem head on.

Congress took a great stride forward by improving our country’s food safety authorities, now it is time to keep that momentum moving forward by adequately funding them. We must move forward on a dedicated source of funding free from political games to ensure the safety of the food we feed our families.

Read this at The Detroit Free Press