THINKING ABOUT HEALTH : Food safety law good for consumers — if it were funded

By Trudy Lieberman, Rural Health News Service

Just five years ago, Congress passed a big, widely hailed law that promised to make America’s food supply safer. But because of inadequate funding for new regulations and inspectors, the promise has yet to be kept.

Sometimes cutting government spending has serious consequences, and there’s no better example of that than what has happened to the Food Safety Modernization Act.

In 2010, Congress enacted legislation which had the goal was to set tough anti-contamination standards for foods ranging from peaches to imported pesto sauces, and to increase the number of inspectors for the increasingly complex food system.

Two decades ago, inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is in charge of most of the food supply, checked on 200,000 imports. Today, they are charged with overseeing 12 million imports, accounting for about 15 percent of what the nation eats. About 80 percent of the country’s seafood and about half of all fruits and vegetables are imported. American food companies might get inspected every four or five years, but foreign food producers may never be inspected.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture inspects what the FDA does not, but sometimes it’s hard to tell who does what. For example, the FDA regulates eggs unless the eggs are cracked or processed. Then the USDA takes over.

After several major outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated food, momentum built in Congress for fixing the system. The food industry, which worried that bad publicity about Americans dying from tainted spinach was giving them a black eye, got behind the new law.

But did the food industry really want what could be tough new rules and regulations, or was the law simply intended as a symbol to assure the public that the food supply was safe? Given what’s happened to the law in the last few years, it’s easy to conclude that symbolism may have been the goal all along.

In a story that may make you think twice before licking an ice cream cone, Politico food policy reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich has told a sorry tale of the food safety law, including reference to the recall, earlier this year, of the entire ice cream inventory of Blue Bell Creameries. This and other deadly incidents have come five years after former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin declared, “This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured it won’t make them sick.”

When the law was passed, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the FDA, which regulates most of the country’s food supply, would need an increase of $116 million to its $4 billion budget each year for five years in order to do the job the law intended. In 2012, even though the Obama administration asked for $183 million, Congress approved only $46 million.

After that, the administration asked for smaller increases, although this year it has asked for $109 million, closer to the estimate. But Evich told me appropriations bills moving through Congress would result in less than a $46 million boost for the FDA.

FDA deputy commissioner Michael Taylor told Politico, “At this juncture, (the law) either succeeds … or it falls off the rails.”

Evich reported the coalition that backed the law has walked away from funding it. She told me, “Who is actually going in and asking for money is a very short list.” In other words, very few groups are using their political capital to wring out more money for more inspectors or are pushing the FDA for rules that make the law a reality.

The FDA has yet to issue regulations implementing the anti-contamination standards that were supposed to make it harder to get sick from bad food.

Does the country still need to beef up its food inspection program? A visit to the website of Food Safety News helps answer that question. From July 1 through July 25, it reported 11 recalls listed for foods consumed by humans and several more for pets. Some of those for consumers involved millions of pounds of chicken products that put them at risk for salmonella poisoning, spices found on supermarket shelves, cashew nuts and bags of fruit and nuts also linked to salmonella, and pickles and sauces recalled for potential botulism risk.

In the absence of more forceful regulation (which is not likely anytime soon), you’ll have to be careful about your food choices, checking with Food Safety News to see what foods have been recalled. And when you hear some politician talk about cutting government spending, think about who will be hurt. As the food safety fiasco shows, real people do die from government penny-pinching.

Tell us your experiences with food safety. Write to Trudy at

Editor’s note: The Rural Health News Service is funded by a grant from The Commonwealth Fund and is distributed through the Nebraska Press Assn. Foundation, Colorado Press Assn., South Dakota Newspaper Assn., Hoosier (IN) State Press Assn. Foundation, Illinois Press Assn. Foundation, Wyoming Press Assn. and California Newspaper Publishers Assn. Foundation.

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