After thousands of people were sickened by tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach, Congress passed a sweeping food safety law in 2010 that gave the Food and Drug Administration new powers to prevent additional outbreaks. But lawmakers have not provided enough money for the mission.
The Congressional Budget Office said the FDA would need a total of $580 million from 2011 to 2015 to carry out the changes required by the Food Safety Modernization Act. So far, Congress has appropriated less than half of that, even as the agency is moving to issue crucial rules under the law this year.
“I don’t think it’s too much to say that the success (of the overhaul) is on the line,” Michael R. Taylor, the deputy FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in an interview. “We have good plans for moving forward. The problem is we don’t have the money.”
An estimated 48 million Americans have food-borne illnesses each year, and agency officials say the funding shortfall could undermine Congress’ intent to make the most substantial improvements to the food safety system in more than 70 years.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who helped write the law, said the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, the parent agency of the FDA, shared some of the blame for the shortfall because they had tried to impose user fees on the food industry to help finance the law. The FDA relies on user fees for some other programs.
In its previous five budget requests, the FDA proposed user fees that would cover the bulk of the cost for carrying out the food safety law. Last year, for example, it asked for $263 million for the law, with about $229 million coming from fees on food companies.
But lawmakers soundly rejected those proposals after lobbying by the food industry.
After receiving an appropriation of $27.5 million for the law in the current fiscal year, the FDA asked Congress to allocate $109.5 million for the coming year. The Republican-led Congress is unlikely to go for that. Even if the agency receives it, the figure would be just half of what the budget office says is necessary.
“If we keep shortchanging the FDA, it will continue to cost us billions of dollars a year to deal with food-borne illness,” said DeLauro, a member of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency’s funding.
The food safety law puts the burden on food companies to make sure that their products are safe instead of relying largely on inspectors from the understaffed FDA. It requires better record keeping, contingency plans for handling outbreaks and measures to prevent the spread of contaminants. It also gives the agency the power to issue recalls, something it could not do previously.