The Clinton administration, responding to public alarm over the safety of meat and produce, will propose a significant increase in spending for food inspection and safety research in the budget to be presented to Congress early next year, administration officials have said.
After a year that saw outbreaks of food-borne illnesses from tainted Guatemalan raspberries, Louisiana oysters and Midwestern ground beef, President Clinton is seeking an additional $71 million for food safety programs at the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proposed increases would continue a four-year trend of devoting additional public money to ensuring food safety. The increase, to a total of $817 million for all federal programs, represents a 9 percent increase in a year when the overall federal budget will grow 1 percent.
The money is being proposed in the budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Spending on food safety has increased more than 60 percent since Clinton took office in 1993.
“What we are trying to do is take the agencies that deal with food inspection from the 19th century to the 21st century,” said a senior White House official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing figures that will not be released until February. “We are carrying out the first update of our food safety programs in 90 years.”
Critics say the government is belatedly addressing a problem that has been growing worse for years because of an explosion of imports of fruits and vegetables and lax enforcement of existing laws governing hygiene at feedlots, slaughterhouses and packinghouses.
Inspectors are overwhelmed by the volume of imports and scarce resources for inspecting tens of thousands of processing centers, the critics say.
“It is good that they are funding new inspectors for overseas, but they haven’t begun to grapple with the fact that they need new inspectors for domestic produce and seafood,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group here. “The money for the FDA, in particular, is minimal and really a drop in the bucket compared to what they really need to improve the FDA’s food program.”
Administration officials responded that Congress trimmed spending for FDA food inspectors in the final hours of budget negotiations in the fall and that the new money would help bring the inspection staff up to authorized levels.