Budget Nausea: House to Cut Food Safety Spending

House appropriators this week approved major budget cuts for the two agencies responsible for protecting the American food supply: the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS – responsible for meat, poultry, and some dairy) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA – responsible for the rest).

On May 31, the House Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote its budget for the Department of Agriculture (where FSIS sits) and the FDA for fiscal year 2012. The budget would slash spending at FSIS by more than $34 million (3.4 %) from current levels. The bill would set FDA’s appropriations level at $2.2 billion, almost $300 million below current levels and almost $600 million below President Obama’s request.

The cuts mean that more people will be sickened by foodborne illnesses. FSIS is a resource-intensive agency: A USDA veterinarian must look at every animal before it is slaughtered, and an inspector must observe slaughterhouses and approve packaging. For years, FSIS has been forced to spread personnel too thinly, and the employee levels have only begun to recover in the past few years. The House budget would reverse that progress.

As for the FDA, the agency needs more money to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act passed in December. The law, supported by food safety advocates and the food industry alike, would give FDA the power to order recalls of tainted food, among other authorities. However, FDA will be unable to reap the full benefits of the law without adequate resources. The House Appropriations Committee acknowledges that implementing the bill “would require an additional $1.4 billion,” but is cutting the agency’s budget nonetheless.

The cuts also mean that the economy will likely suffer. Food recalls and contamination scares cost producers, distributors, and retailers money. (That’s partially why many of them supported the Food Safety Modernization Act.) Foodborne illness hospitalizes 128,000 and kills 3,000 Americans every year. And while the human toll is obviously the greatest concern, the economic costs – healthcare costs, lost productivity at work, etc. – are not insignificant.

The committee says it is cutting the USDA’s and FDA’s budget to address America’s “destructive spending pattern.” But regardless of your views on U.S. debt and deficit, cutting food safety spending is dangerously shortsighted. The cuts would only exacerbate the foodborne illness epidemic that affects thousands of Americans every year and would put businesses – especially the small businesses that cannot weather major recalls – at risk. If anything is destructive, it’s the House spending plan.

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