Source: Food Safety News

On the heels of a high-profile Listeria outbreak and the recall of all Blue Bell ice cream products, seven Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday called on the Senate Appropriations Committee to fully fund the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) by approving President Obama’s request for an additional $109.5 million to implement the law.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s FSMA law is necessary to bring America’s food system into the 21st century by shifting from a strategy of reaction to one of prevention, the senators wrote. They include Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Brian Schatz (D-HI).

“Providing the President’s requested increase of $109.5 million would enable FDA to retrain inspectors in the new prevention-based oversight system; hire technical experts to assist growers and food manufacturers to understand and comply with the new requirements; and build the new comprehensive food import oversight system provided for in the law,” the senators wrote in their letter to the appropriations committee.

Durbin’s office said that the letter was spurred by the ongoing Listeria outbreaklinked to Blue Bell ice cream. That outbreak has so far been associated with three deaths and sickened 10 people in four states.

The senators said they feel that preventive control rules laid out in FSMA would require further testing that potentially could catch contamination before food products are released to the public, including the Blue Bell contamination.

“Having measures like this in place, and the funding to ensure their understanding and compliance, are absolutely necessary to prevent future life-threatening outbreaks and costly recalls,” the letter stated.

Also on Thursday, Michael Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, took questions during a town hall meeting at the Food Safety Summit in Baltimore, including a question about how FDA was going to fund implementation of FSMA.

That additional $109.5 million requested by the president would go a long way toward sustaining the momentum of FSMA implementation, Taylor responded. Most critically, he said, the agency could use that money to implement the import provisions of the law, considering that consumer confidence in the safety of imported foods is especially shaky.

“We’re crystal clear in our communications on the hill that the absence of this funding will have serious consequences for our ability to implement this law in a timely, effective, and non-disruptive way,” Taylor told the audience at the conference.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that FDA would need an additional $580 million in funding over a five-year period to effectively implement FSMA. Even if it receives that $109.5 million in the president’s budget, the agency’s funding for FSMA would still only reach about half of that estimate.

“We can sustain momentum because we’re being targeted and efficient, but without these additional resources, progress will be disrupted,” Taylor said.

FDA sees widespread support for FSMA throughout Congress, he noted, but getting the funding is another story.

Thursday’s letter from the senators also follows a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee from 22 major food and beverage companies and food industry associations which also urged approval of the president’s 2016 FDA budget request for FSMA implementation.

The letter was signed by representatives of industry groups such as the Produce Marketing Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as well as major manufacturers such as Nestle and PepsiCo and some retailers, including Costco and Walmart.

“Our commitment to food safety is steadfast and we need a strong FDA as our partner to fully implement FSMA and to play its proper role in ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply,” the letter stated. “With the additional $109.5 million in new budget authority requested by FDA, we also welcome congressional oversight; not only to ensure these investments are implemented effectively, but also to make certain that the agency’s regulatory implementation of FSMA is consistent with what the law requires, and what Congress intended in adopting the law.”