The top regulator in charge of putting in place the new food-safety law said Tuesday that a Republican-sponsored amendment to the Food and Drug Administration’s budget would curtail the agency’s ability to protect the public health.
The amendment cleared the House Appropriations Committee last week on a 29-20 vote. Introduced by Rep. Denny Rehberg (Mont.), it prohibits funding for FDA regulatory activity unless it is based on “hard science” and a cost-benefit analysis.
“Public health is all about prevention,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods. “FDA prides itself in being a science-based agency that wants to use the best available science to protect people. And legislation that would require us to wait until people are hurt in order to take action is counter, in our view, to what public health is all about.
“We deal with scientific uncertainty all the time,” Taylor said. “And I think if we waited until the last science was in, I think the public would find that unacceptable because you’d be waiting until people are hurt.”
He gave the example of efforts to prevent contaminated irrigation water that is known to be a hazard even though regulators lack data on how each individual type of produce can affect the public health.
Taylor made the comments as part of a Food Policy Lecture Series at the public relations firm Ogilvy. He said current staffing and funding levels were insufficient to meet the deadlines in the new law.
“There’s no way we can build a new system of food safety protection without making investments,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to invest in the science to keep up with that dynamic, changing food system.”
He mentioned the cost of investing in food-safety science; retraining federal investigators to inspect systems and controls; providing technical assistance and guidance to industry; leveraging state resources; and meeting the law’s foreign inspection mandate.
Taylor also said the new law could “significantly reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks” such as the E. coli scare in Europe. Still, he warned, the public should avoid panic on the occasions it becomes clear that “we’re not going to get to a sterile food supply that doesn’t occasionally cause problems.”
“It’s inevitable that we will have future outbreaks, some of which will be significant, in this country,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot going on to improve the system, but there will be outbreaks. And I think that the public has to be realistic about that expectation.”
He said the new law is focused on four major ideas: prevention-oriented standards; high rates of compliance and industry responsibility; global collaboration and import controls; and partnerships between federal and state agencies, the food industry and foreign governments.
Taylor ended his prepared remarks with a plea for public involvement.
“We need input from the community,” he said, “to get this law done right.”