As More Sickened From Tainted Cantaloupes, House on Track to Cut Food Safety Budget

by Thomas McGarity

October 04, 2011

Last week, we learned that the nation suffered the deadliest outbreak of foodborne disease in the last decade or more. As Jensen Farms of  Granada, Colorado recalled millions of potentially contaminated “Rocky Road” cantaloupes, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control concluded that 15 deaths and 84 serious illnesses in 19 states were caused by melons containing the rare but exceedingly virulent bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The disease they contracted, called Listeriosis, has a mortality rate of around 25 percent. Those victims who are fortunate enough to survive are at risk for meningitis and encephalitis.

In addition to being one of the most vicious of the known foodborne pathogens, Listeria is one of the more insidious bugs. The tiny bacteria can hide in the crevices of cantaloupes, remaining there after the fruit has undergone multiple washings. When the melons are sliced, the bacteria can find their way into the fruit where they can thrive at room temperature and even at temperatures commonly found in the refrigerator. Once the contaminated fruit is consumed the disease can germinate in the body for weeks before the victim feels its ill effects. The current outbreak is the first known outbreak attributable to Listeria in cantaloupes, but it will almost certainly not be the last.

Listeria is one of many pathogens that prior to the 1980s were associated primarily with beef and poultry. During the past twenty-five years, however, growers of produce have faced greater pressures from distributors and wholesalers on the efficiency of their production processes and procedures. The growers reacted by paying more attention to reducing costs and less attention to the safety of their products. The result has been a series of outbreaks of foodborne disease caused by contaminated produce. By 2004, the number of produce-related outbreaks exceeded that of beef, poultry and fish combined.    The Centers for Disease Control reported that almost 100 outbreaks of illnesses attributable to fresh produce between 1996 and 2006 caused over 10,000 illnesses and 14 deaths.

In response to a series of outbreaks of foodborne illness during 2008, several major food producers and large retailers joined food safety advocates and the Obama Administration in calling for legislative reforms. Tea Party advocates and their well-funded benefactors in FreedomWorks (an Astroturf organization funded by the Koch brothers) weighed in against any reforms. A massive recall of a half-billion potentially contaminated eggs in mid-2010 generated the public pressure needed to pass reform legislation.

Congress enacted in the Food Safety Modernization Act at the end of last year, and President Obama signed it in January. Among other things, the new law required FDA to write “science-based” minimum sanitation standards for production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. The agency had drafted voluntary guidelines for minimizing microbial food safety hazards of melons in July 2009, before the new statute was enacted.

It is now time for FDA to promulgate mandatory regulations under its new authority. In theory, it should be a simple enough matter to fit the guidelines to the new statutory framework and make them binding on producers. But rulemaking in today’s deregulatory environment is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, and FDA’s food safety programs have suffered from funding deficits for decades. After saddling the agency with significant new responsibilities under the Food Safety Modernization Act, Congress should have provided additional resources to meet these new responsibilities. Ordinarily Congress would have done just that. But the statute was enacted at the very end of the 111th Congress, and it is up to the current Congress to determine how many additional dollars the agency needs to implement the new law. 

President Obama asked Congress to appropriate $955 million for FDA’s food safety program for FY 2112, an increase of almost $120 million. Unfortunately, the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives has decided that FDA doesn’t need any additional resources to implement the new law, and in fact should be able to get by on $87 million less than its current budget. 

In support of this outrageous cut in the budget of an agency that provides critical protections to the American public, the chairman of the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee, Jack Kingston (R-GA) argued that the U.S. food supply was “99.99 percent safe” already because the industry can be trusted to police itself.   The families of the 15 people who were killed so far during the current Listeria outbreak probably disagree.

It was precisely the failure of the industry to police itself that persuaded Congress to enact the Food Safety Modernization Act. The deadly Listeria outbreak offers further support for the proposition that a vigilant governmental presence is necessary to protect consumers from foodborne disease outbreaks. Yet the House Republicans want to reduce FDA’s effectiveness by whittling away at its budget and hiding behind the fiction that cutting critical health, safety and environmental programs is necessary to eliminate chronic budget deficits.   Indeed, Republican candidate Michele Bachmann has advocated undoing current food safety requirements that meet her broad criteria for regulatory “overkill.”

If this kind of laissez faire lunacy prevails, we can expect many more foodborne diseases epidemics as bad as the current Listeria tragedy, or worse. Congress should act responsibly and appropriate the funds necessary for FDA to do its job under its new statute.

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Thomas O. McGarity holds the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform, and a past president of the organization.

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