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Without Funding, Future of Food Safety Unclear

Without Funding, Future of Food Safety Unclear

Two major parts of the Food Safety Modernization Act are set to take effect Wednesday just as a House Appropriations spending bill threatens to cut the Food and Drug Administration's budget by 11.5%.

If passed, the FDA would have $285 million less to work with beginning this October, bringing its total budget to $3.7 billion — a far cry from the $4.3 billion the FDA requested, including $324 million to start implementing the FSMA.

The legislation aimed at shifting the role of federal regulators to preventing foodborne illness rather than responding to it, was passed in January, but not funded.

Four months later questions remain about how the law will be paid for, and if the FDA will have to choose which parts to implement.

The federal agency has said that without a large enough budget it will be challenged in executing the FSMA without compromising other key functions, but it won't begin to evaluate how the law might be affected until final budgets are decided.

Meanwhile, a significant public health burden looms. Each year, one in six Americans gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in four Americans “worry a great deal” about food being contaminated with bacteria, according to a poll by Hart Research and American Viewpoint. In fact, nearly three in four (74%) are so concerned with the safety of food that they're willing to pay for new safety measures under the act with a 1% to 3% increase in the cost of food. Surprising at a time when many are spending less on food to compensate for more expensive gas.

If the FDA were to reapportion a smaller budget it would likely see that the most important part of the food safety overhaul — inspections — are also the most costly since they require more inspectors for high-risk food processing facilities, including those in foreign countries.

But the value of seemingly less-expensive parts of the strategy further down the supply chain should not be minimized.

A part of the FSMA calls for strengthening existing collaboration among federal, state and local food safety agencies, which has potential to benefit retailers and food makers in a big way should contaminated foods reach the store.

By comparing notes and even drawing on point of sale data collected through loyalty cards, a brand-specific culprit may be identified sooner, not only limiting an outbreak, but minimizing consumer avoidance of foods not affected by the recall.

In 2008, the FDA mistakenly warned against eating raw tomatoes due to a salmonella strain before identifying jalapeno peppers as the true source. By working with retailers, health agencies can minimize sales loss, including some of the $100 million that each major recall costs the food industry.