Don't starve food safety bill, officials warn incoming GOP

Federal officials and public health advocates on Monday urged Congress to fund what they called the most significant food-safety law in more than 100 years. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law on Tuesday, after it cleared the House and Senate in the waning days of the 111th Congress.

"Combined, these reforms ... will allow us to build a more robust and better coordinated food-safety system that will keep Americans healthy and spare food producers from costly recalls," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during a conference call with reporters. "Now, the change won't happen overnight, and it's still essential that Congress will provide sufficient funding for these improvements to take shape."

The food-safety overhaul will need $1.4 billion over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Some House Republicans have warned that they may not fund the bill, which gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall tainted food, quarantine geographical areas and access food producers' records.

"We still have a food supply that’s 99.99 percent safe," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the incoming chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FDA, recently told The Washington Post. "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."

Sebelius told reporters the average number of tainted food outbreaks has increased to 350 a year from 100 just 20 years ago. About 128,000 Americans are hospitalized every year as a result, she said, and 3,000 die.

"Obviously, the funding that we have available through the annual budget cycle and fees impacts the number of [employees] that we have on board, and ultimately impacts the range of resources that we have to implement the bill," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "It will be a factor in the way that FDA handles significant and far-reaching activities, including the way that this legislation is implemented."

Erik Olson, director of the food-safety program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said advocates would keep the pressure on lawmakers to fund the bill.

"We will be making the case, along with a wide array of industry groups as well as consumer, public health, victim and other organizations, that this is money that is extremely well spent," Olson told reporters. "It's wise to expend this money to save money over the long run."