I listened in on Monday’s White House conference call announcing that President Obama would sign the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Speakers said the new bill will give the FDA the tools and authority it needs to help prevent the CDC’s new estimates of the annual burden of foodborne illness: 48 million cases,  180,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

But they barely mentioned the elephant in the room: funding.  The estimated cost of the new provisions is $1.4 billion, which will certainly require new appropriations at a time when Republican lawmakers balk at the mere thought.

Fortunately, reporters pressed hard on this issue.  Where, asked Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times, is the money coming from?

The FDA’s not-quite-satisfactory answer: the agency already has resources available from increased funding over the last several years and it “will work closely with industry in partnership.”

As reporters for the Washington Post explained Tuesday:

Rep. Jack Kingston, who hopes to become chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that “our food supply is 99.999 percent safe”….He questioned giving the agency more money.

“I think we’ll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Monday, speaking of Republicans who will control the House when Congress comes back into session Wednesday.

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post noted that Republicans say we already have the safest food supply in the world and don’t need more money.  What, she asked, can FDA do without additional funds?  And when?

But nobody talked about the timing.  New laws require the FDA to engage in interminable rulemaking procedures: writing rules, opening them for public comment, commenting on the comments, re-writing rules, opening them for public comment, and, eventually, arriving at final rules.

What is FDA supposed to do in the meantime?  It can move more quickly by issuing “guidance” or “interim final rules.”

I’m hoping that the FDA is ready for this and will issue such things soon.


This first appeared in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics on Jan. 4, 2011.  Reprinted with permission from the author.

  • DCG

    Many of the most significant biological food contaminations during recent memory (spinach, onions, tomatoes) have resulted from agricultural practices which introduced pathogens into interstate packaging and marketing chains. The emphasis of the new law, and the media’s line of questions, further obscures the need to invest in modern agriculture and food processing practices and systems not simply FDA regulation capacity.
    The law requires signifuicant increases in documentation of farm management practices and produce handling which will be passed on to consummers. It will also cause further consolidation of farmland into large operators which will ultimately also have economic and ecological consequences. Asking taxpayers to cover additional regulatory oversight, without a commensurate balance of incentives for the agriculture and food industry modernization, does not reflect the title or original intent of the law.

  • Michael Bulger

    The bill very clearly exempts smaller farms and facilities that would be at an economic disadvantage. The increase in documentation is to be within reason and not be such that it is not able to be fulfilled by smaller businesses. With an increase in prevention, businesses should see fewer recalls and lawsuits, and therefore ultimately save money. The cost of food safety should not mean an increase in the cost of food.
    This coupled with the increased outbreak surveillance (in order to catch outbreaks before they grow), increased inspections (to catch problems before they start), increased foreign inspections (to catch problems before they reach our borders), increased documentation and tracking (to cut of contaminated products before they spread to other businesses), and mandatory recall authority (to stop hazards from reaching consumers) provide the taxpayer with significant return for their dollar. In the end, the reduction in illnesses will save the country money (via reduced healthcare costs, reduced loss of productivity, and many other sources of economic return).