Memo from MFJ

The Fragility of Progress

July/Aug 2011

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I was relaxing on the subway on my way home from work last month when I saw the headlines. "Cuts to FDA budget hurt food safety, critics say.”

“GOP questions rules on healthier eating.” I was livid….but not surprised.

If Congress slashes the FDA’s budget, the
agency’s safety checks on imported foods,
which are already low, will decline further.

Let me back up a little. Just last year, Congress passed legislation that broke new ground to protect the public’s health, including:

  • The Child Nutrition Act, which ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set rules to keep junk foods out of cafeterias, vending machines, and school stores.
  • The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which revamped the food-safety system by focusing on prevention, not detection, of deadly outbreaks.
  • The Affordable Care Act (the health reform law), which required restaurants, vending machines, and other foodsellers that belong to chains with 20 or more units to list calories on the menu, menu board, or selection button. That law also seeks to cut health-care costs by investing in prevention, which has never been done on a meaningful scale.

But under the guise of cutting costs for business and government, the House Appropriations Committee voted to crimp or cripple those and other programs. One congressional spokesperson castigated the laws as “classic nanny-state overreach.” (Previously, his boss, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, had said, “It’s absurd how safe our food is.”)

So the committee slashed the FDA’s budget by 12 percent. That can cripple the agency, because the FDA desperately needs more inspectors here and abroad if it’s going to protect the public from contaminated foods.

The committee also “urged” the FDA to exempt from calorie labeling everything from deli counters at supermarkets to popcorn and soft drinks at movie theaters. In appropriations committee lingo, “urge” means “we’ll slash your budget next year if you don’t do what we want.”

The committee also told the USDA to forget about offering more fruits and vegetables in school meals. And it urged the USDA to stop working with other agencies on guidelines to protect children from ads for junk food.

I got even angrier when I saw that the Appropriations Committee voted to cut funding by 10 to 15 percent for the WIC (Women Infants Children) program, agricultural research, rural development, and more…and that it included a measure that would make it harder for the FDA to regulate everything from antibiotics fed to pigs to menthol cigarettes.

Meanwhile, in other committees, House legislators are gunning for the landmark prevention funds that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has started giving to local and state governments. Much of the money is earmarked for making healthy foods more available and for campaigns against unhealthy foods and beverages. Never mind that obesity is costing the country around $150 billion a year…and that the costs of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure are huge.

Clearly, the House is trying to cut expenses in this new era of austerity. But its main motivation may be to block government regulations that reduce industry profits. I deplore wasteful government spending as much as anyone, but investing in healthier diets that curb disease can save money in the long run.

I hope that the Senate agrees.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

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