At a time when President Obama has asked federal agencies to scale back on imposing new regulations, the Food and Drug Administration seems to be moving full steam ahead, at least on food safety.
The FDA issued two new rules asserting its authority over the safety of the food supply yesterday. It's also one of the only agencies that has successfully fought off budget cuts in recent battles on Capitol Hill.
And, as if to underscore the food safety challenge, a recall of grape tomatoes found at major supermarket chains has just been expanded to include some 22,000 pounds of ready-to-eat salads on suspicion of salmonella contamination.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has authority over meat, the FDA oversees the safety of just about every other kind of food. And it has to work with state and local agencies, who do much of the actual inspecting.
In a time of austere budgets, the FDA has been asked to shift its food safety system from one that's reactive to one that's preventive under the new Food Safety Modernization Act. And it has been repeatedly hammered for not being up to the job. To get there, it's going to take some dough, says FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Mike Taylor.
The agency's 2012 budget request would increase resource for food safety by about $183 million, building on the $1 billion the FDA has for its entire food program, including initiatives on labeling, another hot topic.
"If we got the 2012 request and we got a couple more like it over the next few years,and got our base up to about $1.5 [billion] as opposed to $1.0 [billion], that, in ballpark terms, is what we think it will take," Taylor said at a Washington D.C. food conference last week.
The new FDA rules are part of the agency's roll out of the new law. One new FDA rule makes clear the agency's authority to keep food off the market that it suspects to be contaminated, without having to wait around to negotiate with states and the food companies themselves.
"This authority strengthens significantly the FDA's ability to keep potentially harmful food from reaching U.S. consumers," said Taylor.
The other rule would require food importers to let the FDA know if other countries have refused to allow their products from entering the country. This could help the agency more quickly identify the riskiest imports, the agency says, at a time when imported food accounts for at least 15 percent of the food consumed in this country.