A disturbing trend well-known among food safety experts will just get worse as federal officials implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Budget cuts for state and local health entities charged with monitoring everything from fresh produce operations to tattoo parlors is “not a surprise, but is dangerous,” said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh Produce Association.
Gombas said information in a report from the National Environmental Health Association, released May 1, is well known to food safety and public health officials.
Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials agreed that the report provides further documentation of what many people already know.
“The most frustrating thing is we know these things are happening,” Corby said, “Staffs are shrinking, public health is at risk, but the people who can change it are ignoring it.”
Corby said state legislators and city and county officials aren’t dealing with the problem. Gombas said the topic often isn’t discussed because everyone wants to cut taxes.
“But taxes are how you pay for government services,” Gombas said. “The public doesn’t realize what it’s losing.”
The NEHA report says the effect of budget cuts translates into decreased ability to respond to foodborne illness outbreaks. According to the report, responses from state and local health and agricultural departments, shows a 30% loss of staffing capacity from 2009 through 2013.
“With the magnitude of the loss, many of the new expectations of state and local programs to integrate into the larger national system are effectively unachievable,” the NEHA report concludes.
The report states that nearly half of all funding for food protection and foodborne illness response programs comes from state and local governments.
Although the federal Food Safety Modernization Act does not specifically assign duties to state and local entities, Gombas said in reality the Food and Drug Administration will have to “lean harder on states and locals to implement FSMA.”
Corby said the FDA already relies on state and local inspectors who are contracted to do inspections for the federal agency. Of the 23,000 FDA inspections in fiscal year 2012, 60% were conducted by state and local officials under contract. It’s less expensive for FDA to contract out the work than to hire additional staff of its own.
Gombas said state and local departments generally can’t afford to refuse the FDA contracts because they are using that money to balance their budgets.
Other highlights from the NEHA survey respondents include:
- 17% of local agencies decreased abilities to do routine inspections;
- Of the smaller local agencies (responsible for populations up to 250,000) who must investigate food manufacturer or processor facility outbreaks, 60% report they do not have capacity to meet that responsibility.
- Of state agencies with jurisdictions greater than 1 million, 42% do not have the capacity to sample foods and 60% do not have the capacity to collect and process environmental swabs.
Survey respondents represented 39 states. The most local department responses were from California, representing 9% of all participants. Participation by state agency staffs was highest among Florida participants, who accounted for 15% of those respondents.