Confronting health threats

Federal, state and local agencies today share enormous responsibility for making the U.S. food supply one of the safest in the world. Yet, an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths are caused by food-borne diseases in the United States each year.  Over the past couple of years, there has been heightened scrutiny of the U.S. food safety system with E. coli outbreaks in spinach and lettuce and salmonella outbreaks in peppers, pistachios, peanut butter and other products containing peanut ingredients. 

 These threats diminish both consumer confidence in our food supply and the bottom line for many family farmers through out the country. Consumers and producers would both be well served by a cooperative focus on food safety efforts within our government. 

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As chairman of the Senate Agriculture appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the government’s two main food safety agencies — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) — I worked with others as we wrote the fiscal 2010 spending bill to increase federal funding to these agencies significantly over the past several years. This has allowed them to hire additional inspectors and increase the number of inspections they perform, as well as better target their efforts. This includes establishing FDA offices in China and India to begin the inspection process of food outside of our borders.

 The president’s fiscal 2011 budget continues building on the improvements contained in recent spending bills. It proposes an increase of $75 million for FDA’s food safety programs, and an $18 million increase for FSIS. Food safety will continue to be one of my top priorities as this year’s appropriations bill is crafted.

 Better funding for the FDA and FSIS is one important step we can take to address food safety threats. But money alone won’t solve the problem. Congress needs to have an open, honest and collaborative debate on the most effective ways to secure our nation’s food supply.  We need to make certain agencies tasked with protecting our food have modern legal tools, regulatory muscle and agile management necessary to address food safety threats. The House of Representatives passed comprehensive food safety legislation last year. The Senate must act this year to restore consumer confidence and ensure a safe and abundant food supply. 

Kohl is the chairman of the Senate Agriculture appropriations subcommittee.