US: Killing jobs and making us sick
Posted: September 18th, 2011 - 4:49pm
Source: The New York Times
Joe Nocera writes in this column that “In January, Mr. Obama signed a food safety law that provides broad new authority to the Food and Drug Administration,” wrote Robert Pear in Friday’s Times, in an article about the Congressional appropriations mess. But House Republicans, he added, had voted “to cut the agency’s budget.”
Well, yes, in a nutshell, that is the sad story of the food safety law — the first major change in how the government regulates food safety in over 70 years. But the way the Republicans have dealt with its funding represents more than appropriations problems. It also represents the way they’ve allowed their unyielding antitax, antispend ideology to get in the way of common sense — and the common good.
For years, the food industry and consumer groups have been aligned on the need to modernize the nation’s food safety inspection system. “Food-borne illnesses” — an outbreak of salmonella or E. coli, for instance — are a problem not just for consumers but for industry as well. Recalls are expensive. Sales shrink, even for companies not involved in the recall. Lawsuits ensue. Employees lose their jobs. It can take years to recover from a food scare.
F.D.A. inspections have always been geared toward domestic foodstuffs. But food is now a global industry. “Today,” said Scott Faber, a vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, “we combine ingredients from hundreds of thousands of suppliers in over 200 countries.” Government’s food inspection has not kept pace.
The result was a bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, whose contours had the approval of both industry and groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It called for an overhaul of the inspection process, and applied tough new standards on food processors, food importers and foreign suppliers. The agency was required to do more foreign inspections, and use approved foreign governments or third-party auditors for importers. It had other important provisions to help prevent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses — and to track them down more quickly when they did occur.
As for paying for this overhaul, the bill included an eminently sensible mechanism: a fee on the industry. Originally set at $2,000 per food facility, it was whittled down to $500, which still would have raised an impressive $300 million. In 2009, when the bill came to a House vote, it passed with bipartisan support; even Michele Bachmann voted for it.
In the Senate, however, with its ever-present threat of Republican filibuster, the fee never had a chance. Never mind that many of the biggest industry players supported the fee. Indeed, many in industry wanted the fee. To the Republicans, “fee” was code for “tax.” When the Senate finally passed the bill in late 2010, the fee was gone.
There’s more. When President Obama submitted his 2012 budget to Congress, he asked for $955 million for food safety, a $120 million increase. The increase was necessary, of course, because without the fee, the F.D.A. was going to be hard-pressed as it began the expensive process of changing how it inspected food.
Needless to say, that increase never had a chance either. With the House firmly in Republican hands, it slashed the agency’s food budget by $87 million, to $750 million. That was a staggering $200 million less than the White House had requested, an amount so low that it will make the F.D.A.’s already difficult task nearly impossible.