The Human Costs of Pander, Take 2: Obama Budget Shortchanges FDA and Food Safety

by Rena Steinzor

February 01, 2010

As we feared, in an effort to save pitiably small amounts of money in the discretionary (non-military) portion of the budget, President Obama’s FY 2011 budget, announced today, shortchanges very real threats to public health. Case in point: the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing struggle to improve the safety of the American food supply. (FDA regulates 80 percent of it; USDA regulates the 20 percent that is meat and poultry, and that is, if you’ll pardon, its own kettle of fish) Each year in the United States, food-borne illnesses cause 5,000 deaths, hospitalize 325,000, and sicken 1 million, and no realistic observer of the FDA’s efforts thinks they are remotely adequate. Yet the Obama budget increases total spending for the FDA’s food and drug missions by a paltry $80 million, barely a rounding error in the funds dispersed for the bank bailout.

Counting the fees the agency already collect for new drug approvals, $450 million in fees on tobacco companies, and $250 million in fees on food producers that are not yet approved by Congress, where the Senate has repeatedly stalled its consideration of food safety legislation, the FDA budget would be $3.7 billion. Even this seemingly impressive figure does not come close to getting the job done.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Bill Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner, saying it's "basically a flat budget" when inflation is considered. Hubbard heads the Coalition to Save the FDA, a highly unusual, bipartisan group that includes public interest, patient, and industry organizations as diverse as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

According to Hubbard and other experts, among the largest vulnerabilities of the existing regulatory system is the safety of imported food. Seventeen percent of the American diet is imported, from 190,000 food production facilities, and this number is growing. Imports from countries like Canada are one thing. Increasingly, though, we get food (seafood, produce, and canned and packaged items) from China and other countries in Southeast Asia and from Chile and other countries in Latin America, all of which have virtually no meaningful regulatory system. Despite these growing threats—and disturbing indications that even food processors in the United States can knowingly ship tainted food to grocery shelves without detection (see, for example, the salmonella-laced peanut butter scandal out of Georgia last year that killed nine and sickened 20,000), it is unclear at this point whether food safety inspections would get any significant increases in funding unless legislation imposing fees is approved and signed in very short order. As Hubbard wrote in the Boston Globe in 2007 : “So where are we today? There are 13 million food imports this year, with FDA able to inspect only about 1 percent. The system is so weak that many FDA professionals fear the word is out in the international community you can send virtually anything, of any quality, regardless of risk, to the United States, because no one's looking.”

No one knowledgeable about the FDA thinks it can do a credible job improving food safety in the United States without a far larger increase in funding than Obama has managed to eke out of his frozen budget and without dramatically strengthened legal authority. The FDA’s legal authority is so weak that it cannot order the recall of tainted food, even in open and shut cases, and instead must depend on voluntary actions by food producers. The money it has to implement regulatory oversight – that is, enforcement – is roughly half what USDA spends supervising the other 20 percent of the American diet. Or, to consider the problem from a more startling fiscal perspective: the peanut scandal provoked the voluntary recall of 2,100 separate products, everything from granola to bottled sauces, and prompted 28 million hits on the website the FDA set up to inform the public about the problem. And it cost the peanut industry alone $1 billion, twice what the FDA spent policing all of our food last year.

We should have learned by now that lack of regulation—of banks, peanut paste makers, polluting factories, Chinese toy manufacturers, and medieval workplaces—costs far more in the end than it would to prevent these problems. For the sake of striking a pose of fiscal austerity, President Obama has made these essential, cost-effective changes that much more unlikely.

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