The safety of the United States’ food supply continues to be an area of great public interest and concern.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new estimates that about 5,000 people die and 75 million get sick each year from foodborne illness. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that the cost to society is at least $9.2–10.2 billion or more a year. This is far too high a price to pay for the necessity of eating. While we may be doing the best job in the world making our food safe, clearly more must be done.
While food safety funding is only one part of the answer, it is an important part, and one we are making progress on. Last year, I had to lead a fight on the floor of Congress to get $75 million of the $101 million requested by President Clinton to bolster our food safety programs. This year, food safety funding requests sailed through Congress relatively easily. In fact, it looks like Congress will increase the Nation’s food safety budget by another $62 million for next year. This represents a major victory for food safety and shows that the food safety community is succeeding in making members of Congress more aware of the need to better fund food safety in America.
Among the activities funded by the $62 million are:
• The Food and Drug Administration will receive an extra $30 million, including $5 million to increase surveillance and outbreak response; $16.9 million to increase food safety inspections; $4 million to address issues related to whether antimicrobial drug usage in animals is linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in people; and $3 million for the National Center for Food Safety and Technology to continue its work in developing and promoting food safety technologies such as high-pressure pasteurization and food irradiation.
• CDC received another $10 million to continue developing FoodNet, an active foodborne disease surveillance network, and PulseNet, nationwide database and network containing the DNA patterns of foodborne pathogens. Together, these networks have allowed more precise and timely identification of foodborne disease outbreaks. They are a worldwide model not just for foodborne disease surveillance, but for infectious disease surveillance more generally. PulseNet recently won an “Innovations in American Government” award from the Ford Foundation.
• USDA’s Agricultural Research Service received an additional $11 million for food safety projects. USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service received a small increase, but did have its Integrated Food Safety Research plan approved. This plan will provide $15 million for food safety activities through USDA’s Extension Budget Success for Food Safety Service and other research grant programs.
• USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service received $2.4 million to further support USDA’s Pesticide Data Program, which samples food products for pesticide residues and is used by the Environmental Protection Agency in setting pesticide tolerances. This program, which has historically been underfunded, has received new interest as EPA continues to implement the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which places a greater emphasis than ever on having good data on pesticide residues in the food we eat.
There were other areas that we were not as successful in funding. The conversion of USDA food inspectors to Consumer Safety Officers was left unfunded. This will be an important part of modernizing the USDA inspector workforce so that they can better enforce HACCP. Essentially, the conversion will provide USDA inspectors with similar training and pay as FDA inspectors receive. Also, the transfer of seafood inspection from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce to FDA was left unfunded.
Over the coming months, the fight for food safety funding will continue. Too often, FDA finds itself reacting to whatever is the food safety crisis of the moment. Today, the crises are foodborne disease outbreaks linked to raw sprouts and unpasteurized juice. Tomorrow it may be another commodity. FDA needs the resources to develop a plan to address these hazards proactively rather than reactively.
That is why earlier this year I introduced a bill addressing the safety of fresh fruit and vegetable products. I have also cosponsored legislation addressing egg safety and requiring the adoption of safety standards for other FDA-regulated food products. Last year, I tried to get an additional $15 million in funding for fresh fruit and vegetable safety programs at FDA into the agricultural appropriations bill. To me, $15 million seems like a very small price to pay for enhanced safety and confidence in the fruit and vegetable products that are the cornerstones of a healthy diet.
While I was not successful in that effort, overall this year has to be marked as a significant step forward in our continuing effort to make our food supply as safe as possible. Challenges remain to preserve the funding levels we have achieved, and to continue to make funding gains for food safety programs that are still underfunded. I think we will be successful because food safety is an issue that continues to resonate with policy makers and the public alike, and why shouldn’t it? After all, we all have to eat.
by Tom Harkin, Democratic Senator from Iowa, is Ranking Member, Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.