By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Jan. 4 – Even before President Obama signed the bipartisan, long-awaited “Food Safety Modernization Act” into law Tuesday, Republicans threatened to withhold funding needed to improve federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) food safety measures.

President Barack Obama signs H.R. 2751, the “FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,”
in the Oval Office, Jan. 4, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The new law aims at shifting FDA away from its traditional approach of reacting to food-borne illness outbreaks and toward USDA's preventative approach. As part of this shift, the law for the first time gives FDA the authority to mandate food recalls rather than rely on voluntary compliance. The goal is to reduce the 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the U.S. each year from salmonella, e. coli and other food contaminants. Any reduction in these figures would also reduce an estimated $152 billion in health care and other costs linked to food-borne illnesses.

The new law is expected to boost FDA spending by about $300 million a year. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), tapped as the new chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with agricultural issues, has questioned spending more on FDA programs “In the face of a deficit that’s now $1.4 trillion and a debt that’s 96% of GDP.”

Welcoming the law and her new responsibilities, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg commented Tuesday that “The historic legislation the President has signed directs the Food and Drug Administration,working with a wide range of public and private partners, to build a new system of food safety oversight – one focused on applying, more comprehensively than ever, the best available science and good common sense to prevent the problems that can make people sick.”

Dr. Hamburg explained that “The idea of prevention is not new. FDA has established prevention-oriented standards and rules for seafood, juice, and eggs, as has the U.S. Department of Agriculture for meat and poultry, and many in the food industry have pioneered 'best practices' for prevention. What’s new is the recognition that, for all the strengths of the American food system, a breakdown at any point on the farm-to-table spectrum can cause catastrophic harm to the health of consumers and great disruption and economic loss to the food industry. So, we need to look at the food system as a whole, be clear about the food safety responsibility of all of its participants, and strengthen accountability for prevention throughout the entire food system – domestically and internationally.”

Aware of threats to withhold funding for provisions of the new law, Hamburg added that “we know that the legislation did not include sufficient fee resources to cover the costs of the new requirements. In that, we will look to Congress to work with us to ensure that FDA has what’s needed to achieve our shared food safety and food defense goals.”

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a long-time champion of food safety legislation and chair of the Senate Health, Education Labor & Pensions Committee, said “Today is the culmination of more than a year of bipartisan efforts to better protect American families against contaminated food. We already know what happens when we do not have effective food safety protections and enough resources to enforce them – large-scale national recalls, people getting sick from contaminated foods and agricultural producers hurt by fears about the foods their industry produces.”

Harkin said “When you consider that food-borne disease outbreaks cost consumers and industry approximately $152 billion a year, providing the FDA with approximately $300 million per year to fund these new protections is a bargain, and an important commitment for the Congress to make. Fiscal responsibility does not necessitate abandoning or neglecting the need of American consumers for safe food.”

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