Food-safety law may be scaled back

WASHINGTON — The massive overhaul of food safety laws approved by Congress this week will take years to implement and could be undercut by Republicans who don't want to fund an expansion of the Food and Drug Administration.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, the ranking GOP member on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, said the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country does not justify the $1.4 billion the new law is estimated to cost over the first five years.

"I would not identify it as something that will necessarily be zeroed out, but it is quite possible it will be scaled back if it is significant overreach," said Kingston, who is likely to become chairman of the subcommittee when Republicans assume control of the House in January.

"We still have a food supply that's 99.99 percent safe," Kingston said. "No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe. But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn't there."

In testimony before Congress in March, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that user fees collected from food companies and farms would pay for most of the increased inspections and other costs associated with the legislation. But a provision for user fees in the House version was cut from the final language, leaving the government to foot the entire cost.

"We're going to have to evaluate everything and set priorities at a time of reduced appropriations for all the different discretionary programs," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who serves on the FDA appropriations subcommittee and, along with Kingston and the panel's two other Republicans, voted against the food safety bill. The food safety legislation "is going to have to compete with everything else."

Michael Herndon, an FDA spokesman, declined to comment.

The legislation, expected to be signed into law by President Obama by the end of the month, is the first major change to the nation's food safety laws since 1938. It comes after a series of national outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to foods as varied as spinach, peanuts and cookie dough.

"A bill that's signed by the president is an unfinished clay pot," said Carol Tucker-Foreman, a food policy expert at the Consumer Federation of America and a former senior official at the Department of Agriculture. "You have the basic structure there, but what it looks like in the end depends on the attitude of the congressional funders and how vigorously the agency chooses to implement it."

The measure will affect about 80 percent of the food supply that is regulated by the FDA. But it will not affect meat, poultry and some egg products, which are overseen by the Department of Agriculture.

Shift in FDA's mission

The overhaul is designed to shift the mission of the FDA from reacting to tainted food after an illness has occurred to preventing outbreaks in the first place.

It requires manufacturers and farmers to develop strategies to prevent contamination, then continually test to make sure they work. The legislation also gives the FDA the authority to recall food; currently, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily pull products off the shelves. And the bill would give the FDA access to internal records at farms and food-production facilities.

Under the bill, importers would be required for the first time to verify that products and ingredients from overseas meet U.S. safety standards.

The legislation calls for stepped-up inspections of farms and food processing operations, requiring the FDA to visit "high-risk" facilities — those where contamination is likely to occur — once every five years initially and then once every three years. According to the Government Accountability Office, the FDA had been inspecting food facilities about once every 10 years on average.

Additional inspections mean more staff: The bill calls for the hiring of about 2,000 new FDA inspectors over five years.

"I don't want anybody to think that this law isn't a very important step in the right direction, but it has weaknesses, and the most important one is the lack of a funding mechanism," said Tucker-Foreman. "It may mean that FDA does very little different under the new law."

The Consumer Federation of America was among the consumer groups and public health organizations that joined the food industry to lobby for the bill's passage. On Wednesday, members of the coalition said they would keep the group together to press lawmakers for funding.