With strong industry backing, the Obama administration pledged Monday to press ahead with a sweeping revamp of the nation's food safety inspection system despite House Republican vows to cut off funding for the program.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, which Food and Drug Administration commissioner Margaret Hamburg called the most far-reaching change of food safety laws since the FDA was created in 1906, will be signed into law by President Obama today. Impetus for the legislation came from a number of high-profile food poisoning tragedies in recent years, including the nine deaths and nearly 1,000 salmonella illnesses in 2009 that were traced to tainted peanuts from the Blakely, Georgia plant of Peanut Corporation of America.
The law's centerpiece requires that every producer with over $500,000 in sales to adopt a food safety plan that includes an internal inspection system with detailed record-keeping. FDA inspectors will have access to those records, and producers would submit to surprise FDA inspections. The bill includes $1.4 billion to hire nearly 2,000 new government inspectors over the next five years.
The new law is designed to move an antiquated food safety system from reacting to outbreaks to preventing them in the first place. The FDA was also give authority for the first time to extend those requirements to importers of foreign fish, produce and other agricultural products, which make up a growing share of the U.S. food supply.
"This is big government, nanny-state overreach. Our
food is 99.99 percent safe. It's absurd how safe our
Without the threat of occasional unannounced inspections, consumer groups fear some companies may occasionally ignore their own safety plans. "The funding available impacts the number of [full-time employees] we have on board, and ultimately impacts the range of resources we have to implement the bill," admitted Hamburg. "It will be a factor in the way the FDA handles its significant and far-ranging activities."
But the money authorized in the legislation must still get appropriated by Congress, and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the incoming head of the House Appropriations subcommittee with control over FDA spending, is vowing to withhold funding for the new inspectors. "This is big government, nanny-state overreach," he said. "Our food is 99.99 percent safe. It's absurd how safe our food is."
In the 2009-2010 election cycle, Kingston, whose sprawling southeast Georgia district is largely rural, raised $51,150 in campaign contributions from crop producers and processors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Agricultural interests were the second largest industrial group contributing to his $1.15 million campaign war chest.
During a press briefing for reporters Monday, FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said neither heightened scrutiny on Capitol Hill nor the absence of new funding would stop the administration from writing the new regulations that will implement the most important parts of the bill. "We have resources already," she said. "We've been very fortunate in receiving new monies in recent years that will go to implementing this law."
Food-borne illness outbreaks cost the economy $152
billion a year, and that doesn't include the cost to industry
of recalling tainted products.
They also have firm backing from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose president, Pam Bailey, joined Hamburg on the press call. "Steps can and must be taken to make our food supply safer," she said. "This will raise the bar for the entire food industry. Food safety plans are the cornerstone of prevention that ensures that safety is built in from the beginning."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people become food poisoned every year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. While the total number of illnesses and outbreaks has been declining in recent years, a new report funded by the health group at Pew Charitable Trusts estimated food-borne illness outbreaks cost the economy $152 billion a year, and that doesn't include the cost to industry of recalling tainted products.
"Those costs dwarf any implementation costs of this legislation," said Erik Olson, director of the food and consumer safety program at Pew. "Federal officials for decades essentially acted as detectives. Under this new law, this approach is completely reversed and the FDA will now be focused on prevention."
Not every industry group is supporting the bill. The United Fresh Produce Association, which represents industrial-sized farming operations, withdrew its support after the small business exemption was tacked onto the bill by Senators Jon Tester, D-Mont, and Kay Hagan, D-NC. Big producers in recent years have seen their markets eroded by a growing consumer preference for locally grown and organic produce.
"The good in this bill is still accompanied by the bad . . . that threatens the health and well-being of a nation of consumers by exempting some producers and processors based only on the size of their business, their geographic location, or to whom they sell their products," said Robert Guenther, vice president for policy at the UFPA. "This inclusion of exemptions based on non-scientific qualifications will limit the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to assure consumers that all foods they purchase, whether at grocery stores, restaurants, farm markets, or elsewhere, have met the same food safety standards."
Some consumer groups are not convinced the Republican takeover of the House would have an impact on the bill's implementation. "The bill will be less effective than it otherwise would be," said Caroline Smith-DeWaal, director of food safety programs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which tracks food-related illness outbreaks. "If we see more outbreaks occurring, we'll get more impetus for funding the inspectors."