In Germany, 17 people have died and more than 1,500 sickened by a particularly virulent strain of E. coli. Der Spiegel explains that this rare E. coli serotype, O104:H4, is especially virulent; after infection by as few as 100 bacteria, many patients develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can result in kidney failure and even death. Cucumbers imported from Spain were initially blamed, although it turns out that the cucumbers’ strain of E. coli is not the one implicated in the outbreak. Investigators are racing to identify the source of the infections while hospitals care for those who’ve been stricken most severely.
We’ve had many of our own foodborne illness outbreaks in the US in recent years, including Salmonella in jalapeños and peanut butter and E. coli O157:H7 ground beef and spinach. Late last year, Congress finally responded to the problem by passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires food facilities to have written preventive controls plans; directs FDA to increase the frequency of inspections, including to foreign facilities; and gives FDA greater authority to recall unsafe food and suspend the registration of facilities associated with unsafe food.
Now, however, Congressional memories of food-related deaths have evidently faded and been replaced by budget-cutting fervor.
The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton reports that President Obama wants the FDA to get $955 million for food safety in FY 2012, but the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the agency has cut that to $750 million. This is a reduction even from FDA’s current food-safety budget of $837 million, which doesn’t include the costs of implementing the new law. Layton gets reactions from some food-safety advocates, who are displeased (to say the least):
Food safety advocates said that without additional money — let alone the current funding FDA receives — the agency will not be able to meet many requirements of the new law, including increased inspections of food manufacturing plants, better coordination with state health departments, and developing the capacity to more quickly respond to food-borne illnesses and minimize their impact.
“Why pass (the legislation) if you’re going to turn around and cut FDA’s funding?” said Richard D. Saunders, deputy director of Virginia’s division of animal and food industry services. “FDA has never had enough funding to begin with.”
States have had to reduce food safety inspections and enforcement because of budget pressures and have been counting on new funding at the FDA, Saunders said. The FDA routinely contracts with states to perform inspections on its behalf. Virginia conducts about 400 a year under contract to the FDA, in addition to its own inspections, Saunders said.
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.
If the Bush tax cuts had expired when they were supposed to, we would have far more to spend on priorities like food safety. If Congressional Republicans weren’t so set on reducing the deficit without raising taxes, they might not be making cuts that hobble the implementation of food-safety legislation that passed with bipartisan support.
As I’ve pointed out before, investing in preventing foodborne illness is smart. If saving lives isn’t enough of a motivator, remember that medical care for those affected and economic damage to the food industry are expensive. By one estimate, the tomato industry lost $100 million from the 2008 Salmonella infections, and it wasn’t even the source of the bacteria. I’d rather see the burden of foodborne-illness prevention borne equally by all taxpayers, rather than by a small number of industries, patients, and grieving families.