Food safety advocates have long worried about federal, state and local governments having the resources needed to enforce basic food safety regulations, but the current fiscal environment in Washington has sparked particular concern about adequate resources for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its broad broad health mission.
In lieu of a normal appropriations bill that would provide resources for the full fiscal year, Congress is working on a budget stopgap measure to keep the government running for six months at current spending levels. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
In its latest policy update, the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, which includes industry associations as well consumer and public health groups, notes that lawmakers have less than 10 working days to approve a spending measure before the fiscal year 2012 comes to a close.
Looking further ahead, the congressional calendar may not leave much time for lawmakers to tackle another looming budget problem — that discretionary spending will take an 8 percent across the board cut as of the first of the year unless Congress comes up with an alternative. The sequestration was mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the deal struck after a bitter partisan battle over raising the debt ceiling.
The Alliance’s deputy executive director Stephen Grossman predicts that after an extended election recess, Congress will probably come back in session at the end of November, giving lawmakers just a matter of weeks before 2013 brings automatic spending cuts.
“The Alliance’s foremost concern will be to avoid the budget sequestration,” said Grossman. “FDA is at risk of losing more than $200 million from its current appropriation — a devastating cut in the agency’s operations. If sequestration occurs: food will be less safe, drug and device approvals will be slower, problems with imports and globalization will become more numerous, and FDA modernization will be severely slowed (the opposite of what everyone, critics included, want).”
Grossman argues that a slower, less vigilant agency would give companies that cut corners — by fraud, adulteration, or lack of attention to food safety — an advantage because it “creates a competitive disadvantage for companies who want to produce and market quality products.”
“I was told yesterday that there are still companies being caught trying to import melamine-tainted milk into the United States. It is a public health risk that some bad shipments might not be caught, but it also undercuts products that meet U.S. and FDA standards and contribute to the well-being of the American people,” added Grossman.
Budget hawks argue that any agency can squeeze 8 percent out of its budget by cutting down on waste and by being more strategic with resources.
The Alliance worries that this is not the case for FDA because the scope of their responsibility is constantly growing. The group estimated that agency’s program costs are increasing by 15 to 20 percent annually due to increasing globalization and scientific complexity.
One of those responsibilities is implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost $1.5 billion over five years to put in place.