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Funding uncertain for food safety overhaul
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican opponents of food safety legislation are already promising a fight over its funding, even before it becomes law.
President Barack Obama was scheduled to sign the bill on Tuesday. It allows the Food and Drug Administration to increase inspections of food producers and gives it more enforcement authority.
The legislation follows a series of widespread outbreaks of foodborne illness and food product recalls. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calls it "the most significant food-safety law of the last 100 years."
But some Republicans in Congress who will oversee the FDA have questioned the necessity and cost of the overhaul -- estimated at $1.4 billion over five years -- and they have warned that the administration could face a tough fight to fund provisions designed to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks.
"The food safety legislation will have to compete for funding with a litany of other priorities," Fred Love, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Latham, who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that deals with the FDA, said in an email.
"When one considers the record deficits our country faces and the renewed focus on fiscal restraint in the U.S. House of Representatives, it's going to be very difficult to find the money to pay for implementation of the bill."
Iowa's Latham and other Republicans on the FDA appropriations subcommittee that voted against the overhaul last month. Former ranking Republican Jack Kingston has called the U.S. food supply "99.99 percent" safe.
"We challenge anyone to find a function of government that has a success rate better than 99.99% which the food supply, based on the Obama Administration's own estimates, currently maintains," said Kingston spokesman Chris Crawford.
The food safety bill passed in December, nearly two years after a salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated peanuts sparked renewed focus on the FDA's food-safety function.
The United States has also seen high-profile recalls of eggs, spinach and other products in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that about one in six Americans gets sick, and 3,000 die, from foodborne diseases each year.
The legislation gives the FDA the power to mandate recalls of contaminated food, requires most producers to maintain a safety plan and keep records showing that they follow the plans, and gives the agency more authority over food imports.
Much of the funding for the overhaul would go toward hiring about 2,000 new inspectors and increasing the number of inspections at farms and manufacturing plants.
"It is disturbing that there will be an effort by Republicans to cut FDA funding and thus prevent this landmark new law from being implemented adequately," Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro, outgoing chairwoman of the FDA appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement on Tuesday.
"Without appropriate funding levels, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would not be as effective in protecting our food supply and saving lives."
FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said on Monday she was optimistic Congress would provide the money needed to prevent outbreaks of disease.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she expected Congress to continue increasing funding for FDA's food program, as it has for several years.
"Congress had already recognized that FDA was underfunded," DeWaal said. "I think that you will see a lot of strong language at this stage, but it may not last until the time when the actual appropriations are needed."
(Editing by Maggie Fox and Anthony Boadle)
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