When it comes to food safety, we may be a penny foolish and food stupid

With an E. coli outbreak in Germany having sickened over 2,500, afflicted 650 or so with acute kidney failure and, as of June 8, killed 25, now might be a good time for the blinkered show horses on the House Appropriation Committee to reconsider their deep cuts to the nation’s food safety budget.

Sure, budget-busting will make for good theater in upcoming Fourth of July speeches back home, but it’s dumb public policy to lower the nation’s food safety net in search of a few political applause lines.

Budget cuts

The Appropriation cuts hammer the Food and Drug Administration. Under the committee plan, FDA’s FY 2012 food safety budget is axed from $955 million to $750 million, a 21 percent hit in the face and a 10 percent cut to 2011’s $837 million budget.

House appropriators don’t stop there; FDA’s overall FY 2012 discretionary funding is cut $284 million, or 11.5 percent.

The GOP-led committee then turns to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The May 31 committee-passed bill saws $39 million from FY 2012 FSIS funding, dropping it to $972 million, or $34 million less than this year.

Inspection Service cuts

. Next on the butcher block is USDA’s Animal and Plant and Health Inspection Service. The 2012 APHIS budget is sliced $73.6 million, or 8.5 percent.

The cuts to food safety budgets at both regulators — USDA’s jurisdiction covers red meat, poultry and eggs; FDA’s almost all other foods — suggests the nation’s food safety problems are lessening. Almost every measure, however, proves the opposite true.

In fact, a random check of annual food recalls, safety alerts and “market withdrawals” by FDA and USDA shows both agencies busier now than — pick a year — before. For example, FDA food-related actions rose from 241 in 2004 to 282 in 2010. Likewise, USDA food recalls totaled 50 in 2004 and 58 in 2010.

(Go to www.farmandfoodfile.com for links to supporting documents from USDA, FDA and the House Appropriations Committee.)

Rare E. Coli?

Moreover, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released June 7, the number of rare E. coli-caused illnesses in the U.S. topped those caused by the more common E. coli 0157:H7 for the first time in 2010.

These E. coli, labeled non-0157s, are related to the virulent strain fingered in the deadly, German E. coli outbreak.

Why more now? Two reasons, according to the CDC.

First, the government began looking for ’em.

That’s a good thing because finding ‘em means we’re more able to prevent food panics like the one now sweeping Europe where, in addition to death and critical illness, farmers face an estimated $610 million-a-week drop in fruit and vegetable sales.

Pathogens. Second, “Pathogens evolve,” Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, told the New York Times June 7. As such, she added, “I don’t think we can afford to stand still while the pathogens are evolving around us.”

But USDA and FDA won’t be standing still if House appropriators have their way. Both agencies will be marching safety efforts backward.

And when — not if — the next E. coli or salmonella or other pathogen-fueled food scare occurs, the cuts will seem foolish, even stupid, in comparison to the public, personal and business cost of sickness, death and lost markets.

It makes even less sense to cut food safety budgets just six months after Congress approved the most sweeping food safety update since 1938, the Food Safety Modernization Act

Wait a minute. Is that what this is about: House Republicans overwhelmingly voted against FSMA last December and now, back in the majority, look to suffocate it by not funding it? This is politics over public safety; elections and not E coli?

That’s really sick.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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