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Cuts in Public Health Preparedness Could Hurt Food Industry

Although preparedness for public health emergencies had been on an upward climb in the U.S. over the last decade, some of our most elementary capabilities are experiencing cuts in every state across the country. This includes the ability to identify and contain outbreaks, provide vaccines and medications during emergencies, and treat people during mass traumas.

So says the ninth annual, “Ready or Not 2011: Protecting The Public’s Health From Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism,” issued by Trust for America’s Health, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to preventing epidemics to protect people, and Robert Wood Foundation, devoted to improving American’s health and health care.

While this may appear like less oversight and regulatory presence for the food industry and, thus, a blessing in disguise, the overall consequences for the industry are not good. The general finding of the report is that federal and state budget cuts have put public health preparedness at risk. Although the focus is on general health initiatives, the relevance to preparedness and response in potential foodborne outbreaks or bioterrorist threats to the food chain can’t be ignored.

In fact, every one of the report’s key findings has such relevance:

1. 51 cities — in 40 states — are at risk for elimination of Cities Readiness Initiative funds, which support the ability to rapidly distribute and administer vaccinations and medications during emergencies.

2. All 10 state labs with “Level 1” chemical threat testing status are at risk for losing top level capabilities, which could leave the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with the only public health lab in the country with full chemical testing capabilities.

Food Industry Relevance: If there were to be a deliberate attack on the food supply, these reductions could have a grave impact on response readiness, impacting the federal and state governments’ abilities to assist the industry in its food defense efforts.

3. 24 states are at risk of losing expert epidemiology support, which has supplemented state and local gaps in the past.

Food Industry Relevance: A loss of such support would also have an impact on the availability to investigate foodborne illness outbreaks, again reducing assistance and response capabilities.

4. Academic preparedness research and training centers are at risk due to budget cuts.

Food Industry Relevance: Anything that erodes such research and training strains the preparedness for food-related issues as well.

5. Potential cuts to the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) mean the ability for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to mount a comprehensive response to nuclear detonation, radiological attacks, chemical attacks and natural disasters is at risk.

Food Industry Relevance: NCEH also plays an important role in retail food safety work. Such an impact on the end of the food supply chain has a direct impact on the consumer that food safety and defense are designed to protect. A quick look at the NCEH web site demonstrates their role in food safety.

6. 40 states and Washington, D.C. cut their state public health budgets — 29 states cut their budgets for a second year in a row, 15 for three years in a row.

7. 41 states had cuts in state and local preparedness support through the Public Health Emergency and Preparedness (PHEP) grants from FY 2010 to FY 2011.

8. All 50 states and Washington, D.C. had cuts in the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) from FY 2010 to FY 2011.

Food Industry Relevance: These general cuts directly affect the ability for the state response to any foodborne outbreak.

As mentioned, some in the food industry may see such cuts as a good thing, reducing federal and state ability to conduct inspections and thus decreasing the chance of finding problems in a plant.

However, when an outbreak starts, the earlier a potential foodborne illness problem can be found, the more likely it will be able to be contained, and the less potential impact it will have on the food company’s brand and litigation risk.

If we were to even focus only on the impact to the food company, it has to be said that while the illness or death of even one or two consumers is bad for business, an outbreak that sickens hundreds or kills tens of people will be many times worse. Focusing back on the consumer, not only are any deaths a horrible thing, but as discussed in a previous newsletter, “Challenges of State Partnerships Reflect Needed Focus for Food Safety and Consumer Confidence,” consumer confidence in food safety is already at a low; any increase in outbreaks will only make it worse, and, regardless of budget cuts, serve to force an increase in federal and state focus.

The inclination to drop one’s guard when inspections are at a low can be related to the inclination to speed when one knows that budget cuts have reduced a city’s ability to keep patrol officers on the highway. Everything is fine, until that high speed leads to a multi-car pile-up.

From a public health perspective, the key findings of this report should be seen as a warning trend. Should such cuts and reduction continue and spread, it could have a significant impact on the entire food industry.


Dr. David Acheson, former FDA Associate Commission for Foods, is Managing Director for Food and Import Safety at  Leavitt Partners LLC. “Cuts in Funding for Public Health Preparedness Likely to Have Negative Impact on the Food Industry” first appeared on the Leavitt Partners blog Jan. 11, 2012.

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