Top Dem uses Salmonella outbreak to hammer GOP over food-safety cuts

A leading House Democrat is citing a recent and deadly Salmonella outbreak to hammer Republicans for slashing food-safety funding.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee's Health subpanel, said the GOP cuts — which have targeted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Agricultural Department (USDA) — would lead to only more food-borne illnesses, like those linked this week to ground turkey produced by food giant Cargill, Inc.

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"The House majority has slashed funding for the FDA and USDA, choosing to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy over investing in and improving our food safety system," DeLauro said Thursday in a statement.

"By cutting their funding, we have limited their effectiveness and asked FDA and USDA to do more with less, and the impact of these cuts is starkly clear with this most recent recall."

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Almost 80 people have been sickened — and one killed — by a drug-resistant strain of Salmonella linked to ground turkey produced by a Cargill meat processing plant in Arkansas. Although the first illnesses were reported in March, it required months for federal regulators to trace the cause back to Cargill's turkey.

The company on Wednesday announced it will recall roughly 36 million pounds of potentially contaminated meat — the third-largest such recall in U.S. history.

It's hardly the first time that Cargill, a Minnesota-based food-producing behemoth, has been forced to recall tainted meat. In 2007, the company recalled roughly 845,000 pounds of frozen ground beef patties linked to an outbreak of E. coli. 

DeLauro said the most recent recall represents "yet another example of how critical it is to fully fund and support the agencies that are responsible for protecting our food supply."

“We must invest in our public health infrastructure in order to identify outbreaks earlier, better protect the public health, and empower our food safety agencies to enable faster, accurate traceback," said DeLauro, who also heads the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. "These agencies need the funding to fulfill their mission of protecting American consumers."

As part of their Agricultural appropriations bill, House Republicans in June voted to slash millions of dollars from the FDA's budget, which would have prevented the agency from enforcing tougher food-safety laws installed by the Democrats in December.

The Republicans also cut funding for USDA food inspectors, who are charged with ensuring the safety of poultry, among other meat products.

The bill passed the House 217 to 203, with all Democrats and 19 Republicans voting against it.

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There are other, more recent, legislative threats to federal food-safety efforts. The sweeping debt-ceiling package approved by Congress this week locks in nearly $1 trillion in  discretionary cuts over the next decade. Although the specific cuts are left to appropriators, they will inevitably affect numerous federal programs, including those related to environmental protection, food safety, education and medical research.

DeLauro said the Republicans' zeal for deficit reduction — combined with their refusal to accept new tax revenues — threatens domestic programs at the expense of public health.

Yet the debt-ceiling bill was also backed by most Democratic leaders, including President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

DeLauro voted "no."