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As Fiscal Cliff Approaches, Advocates Worry About Food Safety

The nation is just two weeks away from going off the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ — a combination of significant, automatic budget cuts and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Most economists agree that this Washington-made crisis will be bad for our slowly-recovering economy; but what about food safety?

Consumer advocates, industry stakeholders and agency leaders are all worried about the negative impact cuts would have across the board on the government’s ability to protect consumers from contaminated foods.

As Food Safety News reported last year, the failure of the supercommittee to come up with a comprehensive spending reduction package after the debt ceiling standoff in 2011 means that just about every non-defense agency is slated to see an 8.2 percent cut in 2013. Of course, this applies to the key food safety agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since many stakeholders believe FDA has been underfunded for decades, there seems to be a heightened level of concern about the impact significant budget cuts would have at the agency, which, on top of being charged with keeping 80 percent of the food supply safe, regulates drugs, medical devices, radiological devices and cosmetics.

The Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a group of industry and public health groups that lobbies for growing the agency’s budget, contends that budget sequestration would be a “devastating blow” to FDA.

“There is no fixed list of activities that the FDA will drop without this money, but significant programmatic and manpower reductions would be impossible to avoid,” according to Stephen Grossman, the deputy executive director for the Alliance. “Mission failure may not be an option for FDA, but it will be very hard to avoid.”

Michael Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, said in September he believes sequestration would be “a huge blow to our progress on food safety.”

Taylor said that the food safety program at FDA is already “thin” compared to its mission, which is expanding under the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that FSMA would take about $1.5 billion over five years to implement, but the agency has been given just a small fraction of that for its food program — about $100 million since 2010, according to Taylor.

“The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which has a central role in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, has had the same permanent FTE [full time equivalent] staffing level as it did in 1992, before the explosion of imports, before the overall growth in the complexity and size that we see in the food system, even before FSMA was enacted,” he said. “We need to beef up the staffing at CFSAN and other parts of the program, so anything that forces us backward — you can just imagine the effect that it would have.”

Chris Waldrop, the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said food safety advocates are concerned about FDA losing capacity, especially as its food safety mandate is expanding.

“It will significantly slow down their progress,” said Waldrop. “Both FDA and FSIS are very personnel-heavy agencies so an 8.2 percent cut will hurt them more than other agencies…it will mean fewer inspectors and scientists. I think if you look at FSIS, you’re looking at furloughs, which means that meat plants may have to reduce their hours.”

When asked about the impact on food safety and whether the agencies’ have contingency plans to handle the cuts, FDA referred to the Department of Health and Human Services and FSIS referred to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

According to a recent report by OMB, FDA would see a $318 million budget reduction out of its entire budget. Waldrop estimates $71 million of that would come out of the agency’s food program.

FSIS, the agency charged with ensuring the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products, would have to shave $86 million from its budget.

CDC, which monitors foodborne illnesses and tracks multistate outbreaks, would lose $464 million. By some estimates, the reduction would also be a huge blow to state and local governments, which rely on public health grants from CDC.

In a recent report to Congress, the White House asked lawmakers to avoid budget sequestration: “No amount of planning can mitigate the significant impact of the sequestration. The destructive across-the-board cuts required by the sequestration are not a substitute for a responsible deficit reduction plan.”

So far, leaders in Washington do not appear close to striking a deal to avoid the cliff.

© Food Safety News