After thousands of people were sickened by tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach, Congress passed a sweeping food safety law in 2010 that gave the Food and Drug Administration new powers to prevent additional outbreaks. But lawmakers have not provided enough money for the mission. The Congressional Budget Office said the F.D.A. would need a total of $580 million from 2011 to 2015 to carry out the changes required by the Food Safety Modernization Act. So far, Congress has appropriated less than half of that amount, even as the agency is moving to issue crucial rules under the law this year.
It may seem easy to forget, but towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, Americans were confronted with some major food-safety controversies. After consumers purchased, among other things, tomatoes with salmonella and spinach with E. coli, Rick Perlstein coined the phrase "E. coli conservatism" in response to lax governmental regulations.
In 2010, President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system, expanding the FDA's ability to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies, and oversee farming. It was the biggest effort on food safety in more than 70 years, all in the hopes of preventing unsafe food from reaching consumers' tables.
More than four years later, Congress' Republican majority is reluctant to fund the mission. The New York Times reports today:
The GOP-led House held a committee hearing in March on funding the effort and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the budget request for food safety "will be tough to swallow."
Congressman, I don't know if you were playing with irony, but you know what's actually "tough to swallow"? Tainted food.
From a purely budgetary perspective, this continues to be a penny-wise-pound-foolish problem. It's true that Congress can save some money by scaling back food inspections and oversight, but we already know what happens as a result: it costs the nation far more money to pay for health care costs when consumers get sick from unsafe foods.
In other words, we can save a little now and pay more later, or spend a little more now and pay less later. The fiscal question seems to answer itself.
But there's no reason to limit the debate to lines on a ledger. We are, after all, talking about the nation's food supply. When your family sits down for dinner tonight, you probably don't pause to think, "Is this food safe?" because, in the back of your mind, you assume there's an effective system in place enforcing certain safeguards. But what if those safeguards are weakened because Congress is looking to save a few bucks?
The fight will continue to unfold in the coming months, and it's worth keeping an eye on -- unless you don't eat food, in which case you have nothing to worry about.