Killing Jobs and Making Us Sick
By JOE NOCERA
“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.
A few weeks ago, in describing the absurd lawsuit the National Labor Relations Board brought against Boeing — for the crime of opening a plant in nonunion South Carolina — I characterized the N.L.R.B.’s effort as a case study in how Democrats hurt job creation. In that column I promised to return with an equally absurd Republican example. The refusal to properly fund the new food safety law is exactly that.
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.
Then again, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, Jack Kingston of Georgia, doesn’t really seem to think food safety is worth worrying about; he’s on record saying that the nation’s food supply is “99.99 percent safe.” He told The Washington Post last year that the amount of money the agency wanted to fund the new law would be scaled back if it was “significant overreach.” Apparently he thought it was significant overreach.
A few weeks ago, the Senate voted to increase funding just $40 million, which still leaves the F.D.A. short. With so much chaos surrounding the appropriations process, it is impossible to know how this will play out. To put it another way, as the F.D.A. starts to carry out the new law, and industry prepares for it, there is no certainty. This, of course, is exactly what Republicans complain about when they say the Obama administration is hurting job creation.
There is certainty about one thing, though. The next time there is an E. coli outbreak, we’ll know who to blame.