After three days and more than 25 hours of debate, the House Thursday approved an agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 with significant cuts to federal food safety programs, to the dismay of food safety reform advocates.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration — which is charged with implementing a sweeping new food safety law that covers 80 percent of the U.S. food supply — is hit the hardest under the plan, which passed 217-203. The bill calls for a $285 million cut from the agency compared to fiscal year 2011, an 11.5 percent reduction in discretionary funding, and food safety programs take $87 million of the hit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would take a more modest reduction of $35 million compared to FY 2011, a less than 4 percent cut for meat, poultry, and processed egg inspection.
House Democrat and Republicans sparred over the food safety cuts, often citing the ongoing E. coli outbreak in Europe, which has caused millions in agricultural losses and proven to be the most deadly in recorded history.
“This bill actually moves us backward in protecting the food supply,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), Ranking Member of House Appropriations Committee on the floor. Dicks says the cuts increase the risk of “recurring outbreaks” because it would weaken the agency’s capacity to conduct inspections.
Democrats argued that cutting FDA funding would severely undermine the implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the law signed by President Obama in January that greatly increases the agency’s mandate. Key agency officials have repeatedly called for upping FDA’s food regulatory budget to implement the new requirements.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), chair of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing FDA and USDA budgets, defended the Republican proposal to cut funding in a tough fiscal environment.
“Food safety is something that we all place a very high priority on and we’re very concerned about, and we have been watching this situation in Europe daily as we’re all concerned, and our prayers are with the people who have suffered and those who have died,” said Kingston on the House floor. He pointed to a recent quote from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said he is “reasonably confident” that U.S. consumers would not face a similar outbreak. Kingston cited the lowered rate of E. coli O157:H7 in the U.S. and said that the food safety rate in the U.S. is about “99.9 percent safe.”
Kingston praised the private sector for maintaining such a high level of food safety without the “nanny state.”
“That’s the private sector working,” added Kingston. “The way you keep your customers coming back to buy more is by keeping them safe.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a longtime advocate for more stringent food regulation, pointed to the Germany food safety catastrophe as reason to bolster FDA’s budget.
“This sort of fatal outbreak could all too easily happen here. In many ways, we have been extraordinarily lucky that it has not happened more often,” said DeLauro. “In recent years, all types of food have become contaminated and forced into recall from Froot Loops to SpaghettiOs and salami to eggs. We have to be continually vigilant on the food safety front to keep families safe.”
“That is also why we passed the Food Safety Modernization Act last year, to give FDA the tools to better respond to foodborne illness outbreaks and to hold industrial food production facilities to higher standards,” added DeLauro. “But for no budgetary purpose to speak of, this legislation would undo all of these overdue and much-needed improvements.”
The honorary Dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), also weighed into the debate, calling the cuts “reckless” and “indefensible.” Dingell introduced an amendment on Thursday to partially restore some of the funding for food safety, but the measure failed 178-241.
The Democrat-controlled Senate has not yet begun work on spending bills. Eventually both chambers will have to agree to spending levels for the agencies.