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Harkin: Slashing Food Safety Not a Viable Solution

These days, families can barely get through their weekly grocery list without finding items whose safety has been called into question.

In recent years, everything — from peppers to peanut butter to eggs — has been recalled because of salmonella. Toxic strains of E. coli have been found in spinach and cookie dough.

Just in recent weeks, thousands of Europeans have been sickened or have died after consuming E. coli-tainted vegetable sprouts.

Last year, to prevent these kinds of tragedies, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. This ambitious law aims to bring our more than one-century-old food safety system into the 21st century and to restore confidence in our nation’s food supply.

Ironically, even as Europe grapples with the latest E. coli outbreak, Washington’s bipartisan commitment to safeguarding America’s food supply is breaking down. On June 16, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives voted to cut tens of millions of dollars from the current level of food safety funding, and it refused to provide any funding to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This is a serious mistake, with potentially tragic consequences for thousands of Americans.

Acute foodborne illnesses cost the United States an estimated $152 billion annually in health care costs, workplace absences and other economic losses, according to a recent report by Georgetown University’s Produce Safety Project.

Worse, an unsafe food supply can cause vast human suffering and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 325,000 people are hospitalized (5,000 of whom die) annually in the United States because of tainted food.

While no legislation is a cure-all, the Food Safety Modernization Act will close major gaps in our food safety system.

It incorporates the best ideas from food safety experts, farmers and small-business owners. It will transform America’s approach to food safety by emphasizing prevention and by strengthening the Food and Drug Administration’s capacity to detect and rapidly respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness. And it will vastly improve our ability to protect Americans when food safety emergencies occur in the future.

In addition, the law will increase the frequency of FDA food safety inspections in order to detect problems at their root. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the law will make possible an estimated 50,000 FDA inspections annually by 2015. In comparison: In 2009, the FDA conducted just 7,400 inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities.

Thanks to new pilot projects that will be created by the law, as well as enhancements of existing surveillance systems that detect the outbreak of a foodborne illness, the FDA will be able to more rapidly detect an outbreak and trace it back to its source. The FDA also will be able to respond to an outbreak by ordering a mandatory recall of dangerous food products in the event that a company fails to comply with a request for a voluntary recall.

Regrettably, because of deep cuts passed by Republicans in the House Appropriations subcommittee, these reforms and improvements are in jeopardy.

To bring federal deficits under control, we must be willing to make tough but necessary budgetary choices. However, we must be equally willing to say “no” to foolish, destructive choices. This is especially true when it comes to ensuring the safety of America’s food supply.

Yes, it will cost money to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act. But the alternative — resigning ourselves to an endless cycle of toxic outbreaks, illness, death and damage to our economy — is the ultimate false economy.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Food and Drug Administration.

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