Food safety is not a partisan issue — at least, it shouldn’t be

It is in everyone’s interest to maintain confidence in the nation’s food supply. Parents need to know that the food they feed their families is safe, and the food industry needs to have the public’s trust. Each year, 76 million people get sick from unsafe food, 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 people die. This is an economic issue, too: the Department of Agriculture estimates a financial cost of food-borne illnesses of $6.9 billion annually.  

Unfortunately, the right wing of the Republican Party believes that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) needs to be defunded and delayed. I cannot disagree more. Thanks to this historic law that was passed in the 111th Congress on a bipartisan basis with industry support, the Food and Drug Administration now has the authority to inspect food facilities for safety, verify the safety standards of foreign food suppliers and recall unsafe food products. We must move forward to implement these critical provisions that will protect American consumers from harm. 

The partisan farm bill passed this month on a party-line vote unfortunately took us in the wrong direction. Included in the bill is a little hidden “gem” that I believe didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved, likely because we were all so stunned by Republicans’ outrageous efforts to eliminate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This provision would require the FDA to conduct a “scientific and economic analysis” of FSMA regulations before they can move forward, which in effect needlessly delays the implementation of several critical rules to promote and enhance food safety. The reality is that many of these regulations are already overdue and are still pending at the Office of Management and Budget, and now is certainly not the time to create roadblocks. We should be working together to ensure that these rules are enacted as quickly as possible, rather than delaying them under the guise of “further study.”  

To ensure that the important safety benefits of the FSMA will be fully realized, Congress must provide adequate funding to the FDA. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the law could require $1.4 billion over five years to roll out, but the agency has received only a small fraction of that in resource increases. To make matters worse, the sequester cut $200 million from the FDA’s budget. While it appears food safety inspections will dodge the consequences of those cuts, the FDA is already under-resourced, and it is a very real concern that the agency will not be able to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act going forward. 

Congress passed the law to make the food system safer, but we can’t leave the job half done. Skimping on funding is just unacceptable. As we’ve seen in the past with outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella, food contamination can cause serious illness and death. Congress must not risk the health and safety of the American public. 

Pallone represents New Jersey’s 6th congressional district in the House of Representatives, serving since 1988. He serves on the Energy and Commerce and the Natural Resources committees.