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Columns August 29, 2011 //  by  // 1 Comment

FDA on a dangerous diet

An unfunded law for practical purposes is an unenforceable law, so it defies logic that the federal government is calling its recent package of food safety laws an enhancement to its regulatory power. Rather than expanding the Food and Drug Administration’s already meager budget, Congress has implemented severe austerity measures and is considering additional budget cuts in wake of the recent deficit debate. As a result, the agency that is charged with overseeing the quality of much of the nation’s food supply will be rendered a little more than a toothless watchdog, unable to meet its previous obligations let alone these new mandates.

In addition, even if funded, these new laws do nothing to address the fractured nature of the country’s system of food inspection. Ultimately, consumers will pay for the FDA’s impotency by encountering more frequent and larger scale occurrences of contaminated food along with the associated healthcare costs.

Overseeing more than 3 million food related facilities, the FDA is responsible for preventing foodborne illnesses by certifying that producers and distributors strictly adhere to established quality and safety standards. This is in addition to the agency’s other primary functions related to ensuring the safety of the nation’s supply of prescription and non-prescription drugs, medical devices and cosmetics. Of notable exception, producers of meat, poultry and eggs fall outside of the FDA’s jurisdiction, and are instead monitored by the US Department of Agriculture.

Yet even at this level of responsibility, the FDA remains egregiously understaffed. Federal food safety specialists are capable of inspecting each location an average of once every 10 years. With an estimated 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses a year resulting in 3,000 deaths; the current system is clearly far from adequate.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, an act that is meant to increase the FDA’s ability to monitor, regulate and impose sanctions on food manufacturers and processors; it is scheduled to go into widespread effect in 2012. Among the components of the act are more stringent safety protocols for the entire food industry. The FDA is tasked with ensuring compliance with the law, a job that necessitates additional federal employees to conduct timely inspections. The FDA is also granted authorization to mandate recalls of contaminated food, which again requires the hiring of additioal personnel to closely monitor production facilities. All aspects of the act are dependent on routine testing, often at considerable cost, which will need to be conducted by properly trained technicians.

While the act looks good on paper, its effectiveness may be severely curtailed without the money to implement it. The Obama administration concluded that $955 million is needed to fund the FDA’s expanded role, but a Republican-chaired House subcommittee recommended lowering the amount to $750 million. This lower value is not only insufficient to finance any additions to the current food safety program; it’s actually an $87 million reduction from the FDA’s budget for this year — apparently some in Congress view the already limited authority of the FDA as overly intrusive and are willing to put the safety of the nation’s food supply into further uncertainty.

Given that the Republicans are so concerned with fiscal matters, their reluctance to properly support the food-safety act is puzzling. Economists estimate that foodborne illnesses cost the US more than $150 billion a year in healthcare costs. This does not include the enormous expenses associated with issuing recalls for contaminated food and lawsuits filed against individuals and corporations. Even if the new regulations resulted in a mere 10 percent reduction from these figures, the savings would surpass the amount of money needed to adequately fund the FDA.

The Food Safety Modernization Act is far from perfect. Food processors face relatively minor consequences for violating the law, and its enforcement would still depend on sporadic inspections and imprecise monitoring. Also left unresolved is the issue of the government’s compartmentalized system for monitoring different types of food products. This creates inefficiencies by requiring redundant inspections of many facilities.

Despite these limitations, the FDA still stands to gain significant abilities that will assist in improving the overall quality of food in the US. By failing to properly fund this package of new laws, we are increasingly taking a gamble with our health each time we shop for groceries.

Marc Anderson is a third-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at opinion@thedailycougar.com.

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  • Camie

    Excellent piece on a very important issue! Well done.

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