In his first remarks to FDA staff in mid-May, newly confirmed FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, promised ongoing support for the agency’s food safety programs. “I’m committed to working with the senior leadership of CFSAN [the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition] to get you the resources you need, to do the job that FSMA requires,” Dr. Gottlieb told an “all-hands meeting” at FDA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., on May 15, 2016.
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“I want to build on your successes in implementing the new food safety framework,” Dr. Gottlieb promised.
But keeping that promise may prove challenging. The Trump Administration’s Fiscal 2018 budget request, submitted to Congress on May 23, 2017, just one week after Dr. Gottlieb’s pep talk, proposes to slash the agency’s budget by more than $870 million, or nearly one-third, from about $2.76 billion to $1.89 billion. User fees, mainly on pharmaceutical manufacturers, would more than make up the difference, jumping from about $1.90 billion to more than $3.23 billion next year—a 70 percent increase.
“FDA will continue its most critical public health and safety activities, including outbreak response, implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act regulations, and ensuring that foods are safe and properly labeled,” the FDA’s budget request states.
But across FDA, food safety activities would receive $1.3 billion, which is $83 million less than under the current Fiscal 2017 continuing budget resolution. This includes a reduction of $109 million (8 percent) in budget authority, accomplished by not filling staff positions when they become vacant; cutting back on food safety research activities; and curtailing academic partnerships and international capacity-building activities. User fees of $42 million would offset some of these cuts, increasing by $26 million (including $4 million for a new food export certification user fee).
“The President’s proposal is not realistic because Congress has already told the administration that no additional user fee programs would be considered,” commented Ladd Wiley, executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA. “In addition, user fees have always been intended to supplement the agency’s appropriation, never to replace it.”
To cut spending, FDA will reduce staff across the food safety program through attrition. “Not backfilling critical vacancies may lead to a loss of some specialized expertise,” the administration concedes. The agency will also make targeted reductions to what the administration calls “lower public health impact areas.”
“This will include reduced funding for imported food safety through decreased international capacity building,” the budget document states. “FDA will reduce funding for cosmetics safety work, which will limit FDA‘s ability to monitor and take action against unsafe cosmetics. FDA will decrease funding for its research program, which supports work related to food safety technology, outbreak response, and FSMA implementation. FDA plans to reduce funding to programs that support state and local health organizations.”
As to be expected, consumer groups decried the proposed FDA cuts, calling them “incredibly disappointing and irresponsible.” But there are also some bright spots in the proposed FDA budget. It would continue to support infrastructure activities at the agency’s 56 labs across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The budget allocates $440 million, $36 million more than current, for infrastructure costs, “including costs to keep up with the science and continue planned activities at both headquarters (including the White Oak Campus) and in the field.”
The overall USDA request for discretionary budget authority to fund programs and operating expenses is about $21 billion, approximately 19 percent or $4.8 billion less than 2017’s level. Food safety activities at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the agency’s chief scientific, in-house research agency, would take a major hit. The 2018 ARS budget request includes program cuts of $161.5 million, including $141.3 million from ongoing research projects and $20.2 million from “lower-priority and extramural research projects.”
These reductions would be accomplished, in part, by closing 17 ARS laboratories, locations, or worksites. The costs associated with the relocation or separation of 674 employees impacted by the closures, and the disposal of related property is estimated to range from $50 to $70 million.
The budget also eliminates funding for USDA’s Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program, two programs to help expand foreign markets. The budget would also zero out the McGovern Dole Food for Education Program and the Food for Peace program, both of which provide funding for food security programs.
“By shredding our farm safety net, slashing critical agricultural research and conservation initiatives, and hobbling our access to foreign markets, this budget is a blueprint for how to make already difficult times in rural America even worse,” says Ron Moore, president of the American Soybean Association.
Groups representing specialty produce, including fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, tree nuts, nursery plants, and other products, are upset that the proposed USDA budget would eliminate such programs as the Specialty Crop Block Grant program and the Market Access Program. “These programs are investments that return far more value to the economy, job market, and agriculture sector than their costs,” said a statement from the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance. “We will work vigorously with our industry partners to make sure the administration understands the challenges our industry faces so that we may work together to develop policies that help, not hurt, America’s specialty crop producers.”
Even Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue didn’t try to put a happy face on his agency’s budget proposal. “I don’t think there’s any reason to sugar coat this,” he told reporters when the budget was released. “We’re going to do the best we can. It’s my job to implement that plan,” he said. “But I believe the people knew what they were doing when they elected President Trump…I think many believe as I do—I just don’t think it’s moral to continue to kick a $20-trillion debt down to our grandchildren.”
But not all of the budget news at USDA was bad. Discretionary funding for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which oversees the safety of the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products, would receive a 2.8-percent increase of $25 million, from $897 million to $922 million. About half of this increase would be used to fill vacancies in frontline inspectors. Federal support for state and international food safety and inspections and other discretionary programs would be maintained at current levels.
However, starting in 2019, FSIS proposes imposition of a new user fee that would cover “all costs” for domestic inspection, import re-inspection, and “most” of the central operating costs for federal, state, and international inspection programs for meat, poultry, and eggs, the FSIS budget request states.
The Fiscal 2018 budget year officially begins Oct. 1, 2017. However, the federal government has been operating without formally approved budgets for the past several years through a series of continuing resolutions. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have decried the latest White House budget submission, calling it “draconian” and “dead on arrival.”