WASHINGTON – Foreshadowing the coming power struggles between the White House and a more Republican Congress, President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed a $1.4 billion overhaul of the nation’s food safety system as some lawmakers complained that it’s too expensive and threatened its funding.
The first major overhaul of the food safety system since the 1930s, the law emphasizes prevention to help stop deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness before they occur, instead of reacting after consumers become ill.
It calls for increasing government inspections at food processing facilities and, for the first time, gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to order the recall of unsafe foods.
Obama made improving food safety a priority shortly after taking office in 2009. There have been several deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning in peanuts, eggs and produce in the past few years.
But some Republicans lawmakers, sensitive to the public’s concerns about high levels of government spending and debt, say the $1.4 billion, five-year price tag is too much and needs more scrutiny.
“I think we’ll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion,” Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., told the Associated Press in an interview. Kingston hopes to become chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House panel that helps set government spending.
Republicans who want to withhold funding would appear to have little chance of succeeding. The bill passed Congress with broad bipartisan support last year on a 73-25 vote in the Senate and by 215-144 in the House.
Major food companies backed the bill, recognizing that safe food is good for business. Recent outbreaks in spinach and other foods hurt those industries financially as consumers reacted to recalls or stopped buying those products.
Obama quietly signed the bill at the White House after returning earlier Tuesday from a family vacation in Hawaii.
Kingston said recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the food supply is “99.999 percent safe” and that the FDA is doing a “very decent job on food safety already.”
The CDC recently estimated that 48 million people – or one in six Americans – are sickened every year by a foodborne illness. Of that, 180,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Kingston thinks it will be difficult to justify such a big spending boost for an agency whose budget has increased in recent years and when government data suggest the system is working.
Supporters of the law said they will press for full funding.
Erik Olson, who directs food and consumer safety programs for the Pew Health Group, said the health care costs associated with an outbreak of contaminated food alone run into the tens of billions of dollars – far beyond what it would cost to put the law’s new requirements into place.