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Return of the Salmonella Republicans

Remember the salmonella-infected tomatoes of 2008? How about the tainted peanut butter of 2007? Or the bad spinach of 2006? These outbreaks sickened thousands and cost the produce industry hundreds of millions. Yet somehow the Republican Party has forgotten about them.

How else to explain their posture on funding for the Food and Drug Administration? As part of their campaign to reduce federal spending, House Republicans want to reduce FDA food safety funding by $241 million for the duration of this fiscal year. As my friend and former colleague Suzy Khimm recently reported for Mother Jones, that would mean, among other things, furloughing inspectors and reducing examinations of imported food.

And that could be just the beginning of cutbacks at FDA. For next year’s budget, the Republicans have said they want to reduce discretionary spending to 2008 levels. According to calculations by David Plunkett, who is a staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, such a cut at FDA would likely force the agency to lay off 600 inspectors, actually reducing the force to slightly less than what it was in 2008. (I can’t vouch for those figures personally, but he extrapolated the figures based on official FDA budget justifications--and his method seems sensible.)

What makes this particularly troubling is that 2008 spending levels were clearly inadequate--even in 2008.

Food inspections got a funding boost at the very beginning of the Bush Administration, in response to 9/11. But afterward, funding remained essentially flat, even though the demand for inspections was rising, thanks in part to growing imports of food. In November, 2007, a non-partisan scientific advisory committee concluded that the FDA lacked the resources, including not just personnel but also technology, to do its job correctly.

Consumer advocates lobbied for more funding, but they didn’t have much success until that series of salmonella outbreaks got everybody’s attention. At that point, the food industry itself started lobbying for higher FDA funding, on the theory that better inspections might reassure consumers and save sales. Eventually the Bush Administration, which had resisted given the agency more funding, joined in, calling for extra money just before Bush left office.

President Obama, of course, has put still more money into food inspections while signing into law a major food safety bill. Now that money could vanish, which would be great for the salmonella--and not so great for you.

Republicans keep saying that government needs to be smaller. Sometimes, though, it needs to be bigger.