With the ink barely dry on the new food safety law, the fight over whether to fund the Food and Drug Administration’s new mandate is in full swing.

Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA), the new chair of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the budgets for FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is still seriously questioning whether the new law deserves funding, considering the national debt that is spiraling out of control.

“We are all united on food safety,” Kingston told pharmaceutical policy blog Eye on FDA this week, adding that he is very concerned about spending the money to implement the new food safety law in the context of a stark fiscal environment.

“Across the board, including the U.S. Congress itself, we are cutting spending.  Congress has voted on a 5 percent budget, appropriations committee a 9 percent reduction and the appropriations,” said Kingston in the video interview.  “Overall, we’re going to try to go back to the ’08 pre-stimulus levels.  So, in that context, we’re going to be looking at everything.”

Kingston said that even though there are too many people sickened by foodborne illness–the new CDC estimates foodborne illness annually affects 48 million Americans, including 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths–our food safety rate is “very high, 99.99 percent safe.”

“Do you really need 18,000 new FDA employees?  Do you really need to spend almost $1.5 billion, which is a huge increase for a budget of $2.5 billion, which is what they have now. You’re not necessarily doubling the size of FDA, but certainly giving them a substantial increase, maybe more than they’ll be able to absorb in the same level of efficiency and effectiveness.”

The FDA disputes Kingston’s numbers–the congressman recently told a local Atlanta news station that 18,000 “food police” could soon descend on America’s kitchens and food processors.

Sebastian Cianci, a spokesman for the agency, told Food Safety News in an email response that the “the 18,000 number is wrong.”   It is unclear what level of funding the agency will get, but it is highly unlikely that FDA will be able hire–or is aiming to hire–anywhere near that many new employees.

Regardless of the employee issue, Kingston told Eye on FDA that he was not necessarily pledging to block an increase to the agency’s budget.

“We’re not saying ‘absolutely not,’ but we’re also saying, you know we’re going to put it on the table,” added Kingston, explaining that he does not want Congress to be “overplaying the hand on the federal side” because state inspections and a “tremendous amount” of self-regulation exists.

Kingston cited private sector responsibility and free market pressure as the key forces guiding the safety of the U.S. food supply.  “Every time there is a salmonella outbreak, or something like this, you know, everybody’s up in arms about it.  Because one thing we always forget is that it kills the brand image and their competitors are happy to exploit that advantage in the marketplace.  Everybody has some skin in the game, if you will, in order to  keep the food supply and the safety bar very, very high.”

Mark Senak, who writes Eye on the FDA, asked Kingston what he thinks about the shift toward importing more food over the past decade, oftentimes from countries with less stringent standards, and whether that trend warrants more inspections.

“I think that is something we all are very concerned about,” said Kingston, who cited the Chinese poultry dispute and the committee’s work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to try to resolve the issue.  “We’re in a global economy–whether it’s the car you drive or the clothes you wear or the food you eat–we’re all participating in the international marketplace, so we want to make sure that we keep a high food safety…”