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Landmark Food Safety Overhaul Could Be Starved for Lack of Funds

The landmark food safety bill passed by Congress last week was hailed as a major step forward in eliminating threats to Americans’ health and well-being, but it won’t be worth much without a bump in cash to fund the various provisions–among them the hiring of some 2,000 new safety inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration.

Therein lies the danger to the nation’s food-safety overhaul, the Washington Post reports: influential congressional opponents are threatening to refuse to fund the measure, even after its passage.

“We still have a food supply that’s 99.99 percent safe,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the senior Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for FDA oversight. “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.”

Kingston is expected to become the subcommittee chairman when the House transfers to Republican hands next month. This will give far more power to him and his fellow Republicans, many of whom are echoing the incoming chair.

“We’re going to have to evaluate everything and set priorities at a time of reduced appropriations for all the different discretionary programs,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa. The food safety legislation “is going to have to compete with everything else.”

Latham, Kingston and all other Republicans on the subcommittee voted against the food safety bill.

Food safety experts say that even after President Obama signs the bill into law (which he is expected to do this week), the fate of the reforms will remain uncertain.

“You have the basic structure there, but what it looks like in the end depends on the attitude of the congressional funders and how vigorously the agency chooses to implement it,” said Carol Tucker-Foreman, a former assistant secretary of agriculture now with the Consumer Federation of America.

She pointed specifically to the absence of an explicit funding mechanism, which means that Congress will have to appropriate funds for the law to function as intended. “It may mean that FDA does very little different under the new law,” she said.

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