Amid the flurry of bills passed in the waning hours of 2010’s lame-duck Congress, the revamp of the federal food safety system was of particular interest to states and localities. In the first major change to the nation’s food safety policies since 1938, lawmakers gave great new authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), shifting the agency’s focus from reacting to national outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, to preventing them from occurring in the first place.
But now that Republicans control the House, provisions of the measure -- such as adding 2,000 new FDA inspectors -- may be in jeopardy. President Barack Obama hadn't even signed the bill yet when Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, the ranking Republican member of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees FDA funding, said the price tag of the overhaul -- an estimated $1.4 billion over five years -- was too high. "No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe," he told reporters in December. "But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn’t there."
The law was designed to be phased in slowly; many of its major provisions don’t take effect for 18 months. But congressional funding debates could threaten to push the changes back even further. That’s bad news for states, says Dan Flynn, the editor of Food Safety News, a website that tracks safety policies across the country. "If the idea was that the federal food-safety bill would help hard-hit state and local health departments anytime soon, that’s not going to happen."
The new Republican mood in the states could have a similar effect on food safety measures. Last year, several states enacted tighter regulations. New York and Washington state banned the use of bisphenol-a, a hardening agent used in plastic food containers that’s been linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. A new measure in California mandates that each of the state’s approximately 1 million food and beverage workers take courses in safe food handling, and a new law in Pennsylvania standardizes and consolidates restaurant inspections statewide.
But this year, Republican-led legislatures likely will focus on more business-friendly measures, such as carving out inspection exemptions for small farms and other low-volume producers, and allowing sales of more products like raw, unpasteurized milk. Last year, for example, Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill to allow sales of raw milk. Now that both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature, as well as the governorship, are in Republican hands, the raw milk bill may be taken up again.
More than a thousand food-borne illnesses break out in the U.S. every year. A high-profile outbreak this year could convince new lawmakers to pursue and fund tougher standards.