House lawmakers sparred over proposed cuts to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in an appropriations markup on Tuesday. A proposal unveiled by House Republicans Monday seeks $285 million in cuts to the FDA in Fiscal Year 2012, an 11.5 percent reduction from FY 2011, just as the agency is working to implement a sweeping new food safety law.

Former chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), told Republicans on the panel that she believes their cuts, which were approved by the subcommittee in a voice vote Tuesday, will roll back “years of progress on food safety.”

DeLauro, who called foodborne illness a “major” threat to public health, challenged Republicans on the spending measure, adding that she believes the proposal is “unacceptable.”

“FDA is the cornerstone of our food safety system,” said DeLauro during markup, noting that she believes the agency has had “limited funding and an outdated mandate.”

“We passed the Food Safety Modernization Act to give the FDA better tools and this proposal would undo all of that,” she said. “We should be strengthening our food safety system, not eviscerating it.”

DeLauro cited a recent GAO report on imported seafood safety oversight, which called FDA’s system limited and called for more testing, as the most recent example of why Congress should support strengthening FDA’s oversight of food products.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), chair of the subcommittee, emphasized the austere budget circumstances in which Congress is operating. It’s “been tight for all of us,” he said. “We have tried our best to focus on waste and duplication.”

Consumer and regulatory advocates blasted the proposal as a threat to public health.

“FDA is a pre-eminent public health agency that assures that our food supply is safe and that drugs, vaccines and medical devices are safe and effective,” said Christopher Waldrop, an Alliance for a Stronger FDA board member and director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “Multiple times every day, Americans use products for which FDA has oversight responsibilities. There is no back-up if the agency isn’t there.”
“FDA’s job is much like national defense – -essential to our nation’s well-being — and providing protection that is too often taken for granted until a crisis occurs,” said Richard Buckley, who also serves on the board for the Allaince, and is VP of Federal Government Affairs, at AstraZeneca. “Now is not the time to cut the FDA, even with economic pressures to decrease the deficit. A strong FDA is welcomed by the industries it oversees and spurs innovation that drives our economy.”