12:24pm

Tue January 4, 2011
Shots - Health News Blog

Budget Battles Looms As FDA Gets Tougher On Food Risks

After a long battle in Congress and decades of discussion, President Obama will sign the food safety bill into law later today. But the Food and Drug Adminstration's biggest challenges still lie ahead.

Now the agency and its advocates have to get a new deficit-hawking Congress to cough up some $1.4 billion over the next five years to make it work.

And it looks like FDA's Hill-connected deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein is leaving, as CQ first reported, so that job's probably gonna be even harder.

Broadly, the soon-to-be-law gives FDA the power to inspect more imported foods, force a recall of tainted foods, and require food companies to get plans in place to prevent salmonella and E. coli from getting into their products in the first place.

But these changes don't come cheap. They require more inspectors and more scientists. And around these parts, that requires congressional appropriations.

During a press briefing Monday, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg tried to downplay the concerns over funding.

She said the agency has already committed some funds towards measures like produce safety standards, including worker health and hygiene and water and soil contamination mitigation. (Psst: That effort was in the works long before it looked like the law would actually happen.)

A food safety advocate at the briefing put the issue more bluntly. "The costs of not implementing the law are staggering," said Erik Olson of the Pew Center. The projected health costs of foodborne illness are $152 billion a year.

But that argument doesn't seem to be winning over the new Congress. Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, the likely incoming chairman of a committee that oversees FDA's budget, told Bloomberg: "There’s a high possibility of trimming this whole package back."

How does he really feel? "[I]f not for the wonderful nanny-state politicians, we’d be getting sick after every meal, the system we have is doing a darn good job," Kingston said.

Of course, not everyone gets sick with a foodborne illness. But a lot of us sure do. The CDC estimates that each year 1 in 6 people get sick from something they eat . And 128,000 of them go to the hospital, and 3,000 die.

That's a big reason why Pew's Olson says, "We will be making the case that this is money that is extremely well spent." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.