Food safety in the United States would be greatly improved if the government implements a $1,000-per-facility fee to pay for more plant inspections, the head of the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.
The U.S. food supply has been battered by a series of high-profile outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach since 2006. Consumer groups, lawmakers and the Obama administration have demanded an overhaul of the antiquated food safety system and reform of FDA.
“I understand that fees represent a burden on companies … but I do think that fee is an investment in a robust and effective food safety system,” Dr. Margaret Hamburg newly appointed commissioner of the agency told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
“It’s a very important component of any food safety plan that Congress would enact,” she said.
The charge, which would require the industry to pay $1,000 per facility each year, would generate an estimated $378 million — money Democratic lawmakers said would go toward increasing plant inspections and other food safety activities.
It was included in a broader food safety bill being discussed by the subcommittee that would boost resources and oversight for the FDA and increase the role companies play in ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply.
Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce committee, said the fees were needed to make up an extreme shortfall in revenue for FDA food programs.
“Faced with such a dire situation I think it is reasonable to ask the food industry to chip in,” said Waxman. “A robust food safety oversight system would provide a great benefit to industry by preventing future outbreaks and rebuilding consumer confidence.”
But Republican lawmakers were concerned revenue generated from the fees would instead go toward other FDA programs that may not be associated with food safety.
“I believe it will be premature to impose significant fees on industry and in turn the American consumers without a reference as to how much funding is actually needed,” to meet the tougher standards in the bill, said Representative Nathan Deal.
Officials from the grocery and produce industry said user fees were not the best way to fund safety inspections. Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said inspections should be funded by government.
The draft legislation calls for high-risk facilities to be inspected every 6 to 18 months and low-risk plants to be checked between 18 months and 3 years. Currently, many facilities can go several years without being inspected.
Hamburg said boosting inspection rates and targeting the riskiest plants was supported by FDA, but said it “would be difficult, if not impossible” for the FDA to hire and train additional staff to quickly comply with the legislation.
The bill also would require all facilities to have a food safety plan in place, give FDA mandatory recall authority and allow FDA greater access to company records.
Several other bills have been proposed in both the House and the Senate that would modernize the food safety system, focusing on increased funding and authority for the FDA.
An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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