As Europe Reels From E. Coli, Problems with Food Safety in the U.S.

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Farmer Tim Voges destroys lettuce in Ronneburg, Germany, on May 27, 2011, after fears of a deadly E. coli contamination spread throughout the country Credit: Julian Stratenschulte / AFP / Getty Images

As a scary E. coli outbreak spreads across Europe, health authorities in the EU are coming to grips with the fact that the transnational body may not be ready to investigate and stop a major foodborne illness. But surely we’d do better if a similar outbreak occurred in the U.S. Right?

Maybe not. We’re lucky to have the crack detectives at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who can easily cross state boundaries in search of the source of a foodborne illness. (Europe’s CDC, by contrast, is much more limited, which may complicate the E. coli investigation.) But America has struggled to control recent problems with contaminated food, including salmonella outbreaks that led the recall of half a billion eggs last year. It doesn’t help that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the chief federal body charged with keeping much of our food system safe—didn’t even have the ability to order a mandatory recall of contaminated food until the passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) last year. The cost of foodborne illness in the U.S. is severe, with 48 million people becoming ill each year—1 in 6 Americans—hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths.

But this landmark law—passed with bipartisan support—was supposed to change all that. The FSMA—the first major change to the nation’s food-safety laws since 1938—gave new powers to the FDA, moving the agency’s food safety stance from one of response to one of prevention. The law also enhanced the FDA’s power to inspect food imported from outside the U.S.—long the broken screen door of our food safety system. The law is far from perfect—it only involves the 80% of the food system covered by the FDA, ignoring the meat, poultry and eggs that are the province of the Department of Agriculture. But it still represented a paradigm shift on food safety.

There’s just one problem: a law like this one is only as good as its funding, and in an era of deep budget cuts, the money simply hasn’t been there. President Obama is seeking $955 million for food safety at the FDA for the fiscal year that begins on October 1—but last week the Republican-led House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA reduced that to $750 million. That happens to be $87 million less than the agency is getting right now for food safety, and it’s far less than what will be needed to properly implement FSMA. The legislation is expected to require an extra $1.4 billion in funding over the next five years, but instead we’re getting cuts.

As a result, we could be even more vulnerable to a major foodborne illness outbreak than we were before the bill was passed. As Lyndsey Layton points out in the Washington Post, states have already been cutting back on food safety inspections because of their own budget problems, and had been counting on the additional FDA spending:

The proposed budget cuts would also hinder the FDA’s ability to increase scrutiny of imported foods, according to food safety advocates. The new law requires the FDA to create a system of third-party certifiers to ensure that food coming into the United States meets the same safety standards as food produced domestically. Without additional funding, the FDA cannot create that system, said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety programs at the Pew Health Group, part of a coalition of public health advocates and food makers.

“These cuts could seriously harm our ability to protect the food supply,” said Olson, who is hoping the money will be restored by the Senate, which has not proposed its spending plan.

The House subcommittee has also proposed cuts to the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees meat, poultry and some egg products. (But hey, American farmers will still get $200 million for the Market Access Program, which helps them compete with foreign producers—at a time when food prices are near record highs and farmers doing extremely well.) Money for food safety is popular: a recent Pew-commissioned poll found that 66% of likely voters supported additional funding for the FDA on foodborne illness. They’ll even agree to a 1 to 3% increase in the price of food to pay for those new safety measures. Congress should pay up—and if they’re not, Europe’s deadly E. coli outbreak should get their attention.

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