Food fears prompt FDA funding request

FDA consumer safety officer Teresa Fox (left) demonstrates inspection technique on a container of crab meat to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt (center) and FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach (right).


Kai Ryssdal: Tomato growers in Florida got the all clear from the Food and Drug Administration today. The FDA said the Sunshine State's $40-million tomato crop can go to market even as the government's trying to track down the cause of what is now a 17-state salmonella outbreak.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has asked Congress to boost next year's budget for the agency an extra $275 million, most of which would go to protecting the food supply.

Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports.

John Dimsdale: The Bush Administration unveiled a strategy for beefing up the FDA last November, but didn't ask for funding. Now, it is.

With the money, the FDA would hire nearly 500 new inspectors and set up offices in Asia and Latin America where food destined for U.S. kitchens can be checked before it's shipped here. The administration is also calling for the FDA to certify third-party inspectors to supplement the work of government employees. This budget request follows numerous recalls of contaminated vegetables, pet food, even toothpaste.

Michael Taylor: We've got a system that's been in trouble for a long time and it needs to be rebuilt.

Michael Taylor is a former deputy commissioner at the FDA and now teaches at George Washington University. He calls the $275 million for next year a step in the right direction, but only a step.

He supports efforts by a group of senators to add that much immediately to this year's budget to start restoring faith in the nation's food supply.

Taylor: And that's part of the real shame here. We don't want people to stop eating tomatoes or leafy green vegetables, but questions about the safety of the product, loss of confidence in the safety of the food and in the government oversight, is very much a deterrent for people making healthy food choices.

Lax oversight, he says, is also closing U.S. export markets. The European Union limits U.S. chicken sales over health concerns, and South Korean anxiety over mad cow-tainted beef from the U.S. has spawned huge protests that threaten to bring down the government.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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The GOP has been trying to strip down the funding for federal regulatory bodies such as the FDA for years. In the mind of a GOP'er, they're trying to get "government regulations off their backs." You could call it one of their mantras. Their one-two punch is to gut the funding of regulatory bodies like the FDA so they can't do a good job monitoring, then to link their tort and legal liabilities to the "stamp of approval" from those over-extended regulatory bodies. It's called federal preemption. What happens when businesses are allowed to run amock, and are able to "get government regulations off their backs" is that bad things happen ... like salmonella and hepatitis outbreaks, dumping of toxic waste, drugs that destroy livers, workers dying from mesothelioma, bridges collapsing, stockmarket manipulation, price-fixing, ... and on and on. These are the things that happen greedy businesses are allowed to get "government regulation off their backs." Businesses and their owners are generally driven by one thing ... profit. To the extent that they can do something more cheaply, or have to spend less on meeting requirements, like safety or environmental standards, they often will choose to cut corners. For them, its a competitive advantage, no matter the harm to others. In a way, its a socialization of the harms that businesses cause. The extra profits and savings from their cut corners are made on the backs of their victims. Business and the corporate structure are always going to "want" less regulation. And to the extent that things can be done more efficiently without sacrificing standards, that's a good thing. But in the end, businesses and the corporate form, must be held to meet minimum standards and to shoulder their responsibilities. Notice how Bush waited until the twilight of his presidency to propose strengthening the FDA. It's all smoke and mirrors.

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