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Experts Debate Whether Food Safety Funding is Adequate

At the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., this week, a panel of experts discussed the impact of funding deficits on food programs.

Martin Delgado, staff director of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for six years, spoke about how sequestration – the automatic across-the-board budget cuts in effect for most of 2013 – impacted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). He argued against the concept that FDA’s food safety work is not fully funded.

“We gave FDA an extra $40 million for food safety activities,” Delgado said. “When their budget came out for FY 2015, if you look at the numbers, they’ve only spent $7 million.”

He went on to say that, “There’s this notion out there that the Congress isn’t funding FDA or food safety-related activities at the level that people say it should be. I would say maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t, but we know that, of the resources we’ve given them, they’re still trying to wrap their hands around what they should do with it.”

And, referring to the fact that the first major FSMA rule won’t be finalized until the FY 2016 budget, Delgado asked, “Why does FDA need money to implement FSMA when we don’t even know what FSMA is yet?”

However, other panelists countered that FDA needs more funding.

Included in the FY 2015 budget was a $263-million increase for FDA “to implement regulatory action.” Of the increase, $24 million was in budget authority, with an additional $229 million in proposed new users fees, which appear unlikely to go into effect.

When FSMA was approved in 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that FDA would need an increase of more than $580 million to fund the expanded food safety activities. FDA has since revised that estimate to between $400 and $450 million.

“When you are looking at what they’re saying they need versus what they’ve gotten, it’s going to make it very difficult to implement,” said Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO and director of research for the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention. “From my perspective, FSMA is largely an unfunded mandate, and that’s going to … impact how successful it’s going to be.”

The American Frozen Food Institute’s (AFFI) director of government affairs, Kelly Pike Poulsen, also made the argument for more funding to fully implement FSMA.

However, she noted, user fees should not be on the table.

“If FDA does not receive additional funds, FSMA implementation, we do believe, may suffer,” Poulsen said. “We do believe that, with appropriate focus and prioritization, the FSMA rules can be implemented without placing additional financial burdens on the food and beverage industry.”

Her argument was that, unlike user fees tied to a faster review process for new drug applications, food companies wouldn’t derive a direct benefit.

Donna Garren, vice president of AFFI’s regulatory and technical affairs department, chimed in from the audience, calling user fees “an additional tax without an additional benefit.”

And, despite multiple requests for how the additional revenue from such fees would be spent, “They have no plan,” Garren said.

While FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg refers to “working with industry” on user fees, Poulsen said FDA is not actually giving industry “enough of a plan.”

Kowalcyk also addressed the consequences of a lack of funding for FSIS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Food Safety Office.

FSIS’ budget declined by $9 million in the FY 2015 budget, but “80 percent … goes to salaries and benefits, another 15 percent goes to travel for inspections and investigations,” she said. “It’s a pretty lean budget. If you’re cutting money from FSIS’ budget, you’re cutting positions.”

Kowalcyk referenced the equivalency granted to China for poultry processing and wondered, in an increasingly global food supply, “How are we then going to be able to address the import issue?” in the face of budget cuts.

“That’s just one example of many where it’s going to be difficult for us to keep up,” she said.

CDC is often overlooked when it comes to funding food safety programs, Kowalcyk said, but “epidemiology really drives prevention and risk-based decision-making.”

CDC’s food safety budget in 2014 was $40 million. “Half of that went to the states and $15 million of that went to competitive grants,” Kowalcyk said.

She added that funding for research is important both for new innovations and for developing the next generation of the food safety workforce who are trained by researchers at academic institutions.

The FY 2015 request proposes an additional $10 million for CDC’s food safety work, but when asked about the prospect of additional money for food safety research in light of a budget with only minimal increases, Kowalcyk said she’s not optimistic.

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