U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Margaret Hamburg emphasized the stark budget challenge facing the agency, which is charged with overseeing 80 percent of the food supply, in a speech before a food policy audience in Washington, DC Tuesday.

The FDA’s hundred-year-old “promise” to protect public health “speaks to government’s most basic function:  to safeguard the well being and the welfare of all of its citizens,” said Hamburg. Her remarks — which, for the first time in several months, focused almost exclusively on food safety — come right as much of Washington is focused on the budget cuts expected to come out of the bipartisan supercommittee. The panel, made up of six representatives and six senators, is charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years.

“We understand that these are times of fiscal constraints, and we’re committed to doing our job by allocating our resources based on risks and priorities,” explained Hamburg. “But we certainly can’t do everything we need to do–not without a significant infusion of financial resources.”

What level of funding FDA will see for Fiscal Year 2012 remains unclear, even though FY 2012 began Oct 1. The House-passed agriculture appropriations bill calls for a $285 million cut to the agency, $87 million of which is estimated to come from food safety. But, as advocacy group Alliance for a Stronger FDA points out, the lower chamber approved the appropriations bill before the Budget Control Act cleared Congress in order to end the high stakes debt limit impasse in early August.

The spending level set forth in BCA is actually higher than the bill the House passed in June. The appropriations bill in the Senate used BCA numbers and would give FDA a $50 million increase.  

“The current House position, of cutting FDA by $285 million in FY 12, is in the context of significantly lower aggregate spending,” says the Alliance, adding that it’s difficult to compare the House and Senate bills at this point. “If the House had had more money to spend, it seems reasonable to assume that FDA would have gotten some of it … perhaps as much or more than what is in the Senate bill.

“Sadly, the food safety component is vulnerable,” Hamburg told reporters at the conference, citing chronic underfunding of food safety programs. “While in recent years we’ve seen some increases that have been valuable … there remains a very large gap between what we have and what we need.”

The “promise’ of FDA was a common theme in Hamburg’s speech, which was delivered before a diverse food policy audience at the 34th annual National Food Policy Conference.

“In food safety, we know that many of the risks of tomorrow may not even be on our horizon today.  We need a world-class science base to see over that horizon,” said Hamburg. “If we want to ensure that our food is safer, we need to be able to invest in compliance. We need to help educate and train  industry — especially small businesses — through guidance documents that address the real-world issues companies face in trying to abide by the rules.”

“We need to educate and train our own work force, because we’re asking them to inspect facilities with an eye on prevention and problem-solving — not just effectively writing ‘speeding tickets’ for infractions.”

As Hamburg, and lots of other food policy experts have noted, all of these initiatives require federal resources to invest in infrastructure, training, and scientific capacity. Budgetary politics will have a big impact on how the food safety bill will be implemented in the coming years.

At the same conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said that out of all the department’s budgetary worries, food safety was not top of mind.

“I’m least concerned about the food-safety part than any other part,” Vilsack told the conference in his address, noting that even though the country faces high unemployment, nutrition assistance, which makes up the vast majority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget, was likely more vulnerable to cuts.