FDA Needs $5 Billion, Former Official Says

President Obama’s FY 2011 budget allots some $1.37 billion for food safety programs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the agency requires about five times that to keep the nation’s food supply safe, according to former FDA Associate Commissioner of Foods David Acheson, MD.

“I firmly believe that FDA probably needs about $5 billion to do its job well, not $1 [billion],” Dr. Acheson told an audience of food safety experts at the American Conference Institute’s 4th National Forum on Food-Borne Illness Litigation in Chicago. “But where’s that money going to come from?” Dr. Acheson is now managing director for the food and import safety practice at the Salt Lake City-based consulting firm Leavitt Partners.

Current economic realities mean that the FDA is not likely to see a budget anywhere near that figure anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean it’s not needed, agreed foodborne illness attorney and food safety blogger Bill Marler. “I think Dr. Acheson recognizes that for what we ask the FDA to do, it is woefully underfunded. Whether the number that the FDA needs to protect consumers from unsafe food is $4, $5, or $6 billion, it does not seem unreasonable to me.”

Assuming that any increase in funding for the FDA’s food safety efforts in future budgets will be much more Spartan, where should any added funds go first? Marler wouldn’t commit. “That is a tough call, and I am not sure there is a very good answer,” he said.

“Some people say more funding should first go toward research, while others say replacing retiring staff and adequately training the new staff hires,” said Purnendu C. Vasavada, PhD, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “With the science constantly changing, both areas are critical.”

At the forum, Dr. Acheson also praised the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, currently stalled in the U.S. Senate, as a good baseline for action. “I think this legislation is needed simply because it sets a bar, and that way everybody can work around that bar and, as the regulations get written, engage with the regulators so that the legislation turns into good regulation,” he said.

But what chance does the bill have in the new Congress? Marler said he remains optimistic that there will be action during the upcoming lame duck session. “I am still hopeful that food safety legislation will be passed by the Senate, compromised with the House version passed in 2009, and signed by the president by the end of the year,” he said.

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