The Food and Drug Administration will reduce food-safety inspections by about 18% because of federal budget cuts, which could impact the millions of people at risk of foodborne illness, FDA officials cautioned Wednesday.
Although consumers may not feel the impact immediately, the loss of $209 million from its budget will force the agency to conduct about 2,100 fewer inspections.
The funding loss, part of the $85billion in sequester cuts that took effect March 1, will also delay the agency's implementation of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in an interview with the USA TODAY Editorial Board.
The FDA could also take longer to review and approve new drugs, she said. "All of those programs will be compromised by the cuts," she added. "Sequester is a big hit for us. ... The cuts are real and will have impacts." The FDA will prioritize programs that have the greatest effect on public health, including disease outbreaks, she said. Hamburg does not expect to furlough workers.
About 48 million people develop a food-borne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 3,000 die, and 128,000 are hospitalized.
The FDA is already facing sharp criticism, and even legal action, for being slow to implement the food- safety law, signed by President Obama in 2011. The law aimed to refocus the FDA's efforts on prevention, rather than responding to crises.
A federal judge in California has ordered the FDA to work with two food-safety advocacy groups to speed up the process.
"Nobody is more frustrated than we are" that the law isn't yet in practice, said Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine. With every year that passes before the law is in practice, more people are at risk of getting sick, Taylor said.
Even before the sequester, the FDA was able to inspect less than 2% of all food imports, Taylor said. Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said she fears the cuts will lead to more outbreaks. "It's a huge step in the wrong direction," Halloran said.
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